Return to site — were we consulted?

By David Chivall

On 7th September 2020 there were 15 deaths from covid-19 in the UK, 3,857 new cases of the disease and no vaccine had yet made it out of clinical trials. On the same day the Vice-Chancellor announced in a message to all staff that the University was moving to “Business Continuity Plan Level 2” in advance of the new academic year. This meant that while staff should continue to work from home if possible, some in-person teaching would be allowed, albeit with social distancing restrictions and mandatory face coverings. At the time there were also national restrictions on the number of people allowed to meet. Once Michaelmas Term began, cases within the University and city rapidly rose and by the end of Week 3 Oxford city had been placed by the government under “High Alert” for coronavirus.

On 6th September 2021 there were 136 deaths from the coronavirus, 44,130 new cases, and 65% of the UK population had been vaccinated against the disease. On this day the University moved to “Business Continuity Plan Level 1” in preparation for the new academic year. There is now an expectation that everyone who can will return to their offices and labs for the start of term while mitigations such as social distancing and face coverings are no longer mandatory, and there are no limits on group sizes.

The Vice-Chancellor’s announcement of the return to on-site working caused some disquiet: for many staff this was the biggest change in their working conditions since the beginning of the first lockdown in March 2020. In response Oxford UCU carried out a rapid survey of our members. The survey was open for four days over the weekend of the 18th September and received 346 responses. The survey consisted of ten multiple choice questions and a free-text box for further comments.

At the time of the survey, over a third (36%) of respondents had not worked on-site during the previous six months. A further fifth (21%) had worked on-site “barely at all” and another 14% “on occasion”. Half of respondents (50%) were not working on-site at the time of the survey. Most (63%) respondents were happy with their current amount of on-site work, while there was a fairly even split of people who would like to be working on-site more (18%) or less (19%).

Staff continue to be concerned about their own health and safety in relation to working on-site during the pandemic: a quarter (25%) of respondents were very concerned about their own health, 40% were concerned and 33% unconcerned. By removing universal mitigations such as face coverings and social distancing, the University has, in effect, devolved health and safety decisions about how to conduct on-site activities during this latest phase of the pandemic to its departments. Concerningly, at the time of the survey 47% of respondents had not been provided with updated risk assessments for working on-site and a further 23% did not know if one had been provided. Similarly, over two-thirds (67%) of respondents reported that they had not had a meeting with a line manager to discuss health and safety issues related to on-site working.

Free-text responses highlighted concerns about the impact of the new policy on clinically vulnerable colleagues; one said: “All of the onus has been put on clinically vulnerable individuals to have to advocate for themselves …it’s producing a particular level of stress that means we are permanently trapped into thinking about our basic safety … all the time.” Other comments expressed surprise at the change in policy on face coverings: “I really do not understand why the university could not bring itself to institute a clear and comprehensive mask mandate.” “‘Encouraging’ mask wearing as opposed to mandating it is absolutely not working.”

The apparently unexpected announcement of the change in policy meant that 58% of respondents felt that their views had not been taken into account with the new announcement: only 12% felt their views had been taken into account. Likewise, 45% of respondents felt that communication around the policy had been “unclear” or “very unclear”; 35% felt that communications were “clear” or “very clear.” At a more local level, 48% felt that covid-19 health and safety rules were clear or very clear in the area of the University in which they work while 35% felt that the rules were “unclear” or “very unclear.”

Comments further highlighted the lack of clear communication and the unexpected announcement. For example: “From the reaction of departmental administrators … I don’t feel they had been given enough notice to make preparations” and “Departments seem to be unclear on interpreting what the University’s guidance is requesting.” The disparity between academic staff—given the freedom to choose their location of work—and administrative staff, who may be more likely to be instructed to come to the office, was remarked. Several respondents noted that the call to return on-site undid many of the developments in working practices made during the pandemic and which have previously been acknowledged in the University’s “New Ways of Working.”

Whether or not cases will increase during this term as they did last year, the University needs to work harder to ensure that all staff are adequately consulted about changes to their working practices and to provide staff with the information and support to carry out their work safely during the pandemic. The pandemic has not ceased to be a risk to University staff, some more so than others, and the current mixture of responses across the University will inevitably mean that not all staff are receiving the highest possible protection that they deserve.

This article first appeared in No. 435 Noughth Week Michaelmas Term 2021 edition of the Oxford Magazine

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