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INDUSTRIAL ACTION: University staff ‘feel unsafe’ going back to work

INDUSTRIAL ACTION: University staff ‘feel unsafe’ going back to work

UCU members at Northumbria did previously vote in favour of a strike last November over Covid safety worries, Image: Google Maps

Northumbria University staff say they feel “unsafe” going back to work after the removal of Covid safety measures and could take industrial action.

The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) has issued a warning after a poll completed by nearly 500 Northumbria members found that 75% “feel unsafe about teaching on campus”, ahead of the start of teaching in the new academic year next week.

Students will be getting more face-to-face learning this year, as more lectures and seminars are held in-person again rather than online.

But face coverings and social distancing will no longer be mandatory across the campus.

The UCU said axeing the measures “risks threatening staff, students, and the community”, with the union now expected to declare a formal dispute with the university over the concerns and ballot members on potential industrial action.

UCU members at Northumbria did previously vote in favour of a strike last November over Covid safety worries, though the result was confirmed shortly after the university had agreed to limit in-person teaching in response to fears that staff were “having to choose between their health and their work”.

The university said it was holding talks with trade unions this week to try and resolve the latest concerns and that its Covid protocols “are robust and either follow or exceed Government guidance”.

In a statement on the branch’s website, the UCU said: “The prospect of teaching face-to-face, and seeing students and colleagues in person again, is exciting.

“But things are nowhere near ‘normal’ yet, and it is disingenuous and dangerous to pretend otherwise.

“Such a position risks threatening staff, students, and the community. This means the prospect of face-to-face teaching is, for some, deeply concerning, as it was last year.”

The union claimed that some staff had been told to “do face-to-face or resign” and urged the university to reinstate safety measures to “avoid the chaos, stress and overwork” endured last year.

The UCU said its members wanted the university to provide weekly updates on reports of Covid cases, require staff and students have two negative lateral flow tests a week, and mandate the wearing of PPE in defined situations.

Northumbria branch members voted in favour of a motion accusing the university of a “breach of trust and of health and safety guidance” and to declare a dispute “with a view to balloting for industrial action as soon as possible thereafter, if the university fails to consult meaningfully with the trade unions and deliver enhanced health and safety measures before induction week”.

A university spokesman confirmed there has been no formal dispute declared by the union at this stage.

They added: “The University continues to hold regular discussions with our recognised trade unions in order to resolve issues of concern.

“Our Covid-19 safety procedures are robust and either follow or exceed Government guidance.

“We strongly encourage staff, students and visitors to wear face coverings inside buildings, when moving around and when in close proximity to each other. We expect everyone to be respectful of others’ views and to wear a face covering if asked to do so. In some circumstances face coverings will be required, for example where it is not possible to maintain appropriate distance.

“Hand sanitiser stations in buildings and enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures remain in place across the campus. Ventilation in all buildings is appropriate and air quality is checked regularly to ensure safety.

“The University continues to provide Lateral Flow Testing for staff and students on site, or at home, as well as pop-up Covid-19 vaccination sites on campus throughout the first weeks of term.

“Our clear aim is to deliver the highest possible learning experience for our students, providing face-to-face teaching on campus within a supportive community. We are taking reasonable measures to ensure this is carried out safely for the wellbeing of both our staff and students.”


Words: Daniel Holland, Local Democracy Reporter

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