Evidence summary to inform safe return to campus in the context of COVID-19

Colleagues in Oxford and Leeds have collated a short briefing consolidating the evidence base on safe return to on-site working.

This briefing emphasises that key to effective prevention of COVID-19 is acknowledgement of its predominantly airborne mode of transmission. This should lead to risk assessments incorporating the following measures:

1. The use of face coverings at all times while indoors, with encouragement to wear higher-grade respirators for best protection – especially for those who are clinically vulnerable.

2. A greater focus on engineering controls including ventilation and/or filtration of air.

3. Continuing attention to physical distancing but acknowledging that a particular spacing between people in the same room will not make a space “safe”. Additional measures, such as joining remotely, cohorting and frequent breaks, should be used to reduce crowding and time spent in the same room with other people.

In addition, university and college staff should encourage and facilitate vaccination, attend to testing and tracing, and be ready to instigate tighter controls (including a return to online teaching) if case numbers rise.

We hope you find this document useful in navigating and negotiating the safest possible return to on-site work over the coming weeks.

Please e-mail ucu@ox.ac.uk if you have ongoing concerns regarding health and safety.

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

UCU Survey about Return to On-site Working

In mid-September many of you responded to a survey circulated by Oxford UCU on the University’s new policy that “staff are expected to resume on-site working”. The survey had a great response, with 346 people completing it in just 4 days. Your feedback was invaluable: if you filled in the survey and encouraged others to do so, you have helped to inform our collective response. 

The results from the survey are clear:

Patchy risk assessment provision: Concerningly, many respondents reported they had not been provided with updated risk assessments (46.6% answered “no” when asked if they had been provided with one, 22.7% did not know if one had been provided).

Health and Safety issues not adequately discussed: Over two-thirds of respondents reported they had not had a meeting with a line manager to discuss H&S issues related to on-site working (67.4%).

Working practices at the time of the survey were working for most people: The majority of UCU members were happy with their current levels of on-site working (63%). There are approximately equal smaller groups who would like to work on-site more (17.6%) or less (19.4%). This suggests that a flexible approach is needed, not a blanket policy that “staff are expected to resume on-site working”. The new policy is not wanted by most staff and is a missed opportunity to recognise new ways of working.  

Most of you feel your views are not taken into account in the new policy: Many respondents felt the University’s new policy that “staff are expected to resume on-site working” had not properly taken their views into account (57.7%). Even those who support more on-site working personally raised questions over the policy. 

Unclear communication and consultation: The University’s communications about the new policy have not been clear for many respondents (45.6% said they were “unclear” or “very unclear”; 19.1% said they were “clear” or “very clear”), and some respondents raised concerns about possible changes to the policy over the next few months. There was a recognition of the disproportionate impact of changes across the University, for example between colleagues in administrative roles and those in academic roles.

Download the summary, including more detailed qualitative feedback. 

Your union colleagues will be representing these views to the University.

Many of you will be working hard on this in your own departments and areas – we hope this summary clarifies how your colleagues currently feel about the return to on-site working.

For more information please see the UCU coronavirus pages, which include updated advice about ventilation.

Oxford UCU position on face-to-face teaching

With over 14,000 staff and over 24,000 students, the University of Oxford is a place of work and study for a quarter of the population of Oxford. Hence, safe on-site working and studying is a public health concern.

Substantial teaching that could otherwise have been done remotely (e.g. the majority of tutorial teaching), is now being undertaken in person during Michaelmas term. We note the strong recommendation of SAGE on 21 September, that ‘all university and college teaching to be online unless absolutely essential’. We maintain that such in person teaching should revert to online as soon as possible, and that teaching plans in Hilary term are revisited so that the unnecessary situation we are currently experiencing is not repeated next term.

The government has suggested that students may be required to quarantine for two weeks before returning home at the end of term. Where students could revert to online teaching, we would support them isolating now, and returning home to continue their studies safely earlier, rather than being locked in on campus all term.

Online teaching

A report presenting our recommendations for remote teaching and measures to help both teaching staff in doing their job from home and those who have to be on-site for practical courses was presented to the Oxford UCU AGM on 16 October 2020. The AGM agreed to adopt the recommendations and resolved to submit the report and recommendations to the Collegiate University.

The report is informed by data from the Oxford UCU return to on-site work and COVID-19 impact survey which ran between 30 June and 18 August 2020, collecting results from 824 respondents. The recommendations are based on discussions with H&S experts and University of Oxford H&S representatives and staff members, and are informed by current scientific advice and understanding of the virus. We also reference UCU, SAGE and independent SAGE recommendations.

Our recommendations are as follows:

Recommendation 1
In order to ensure the health and safety of students and staff, teaching should, in the first instance, be done remotely. Furthermore, f2f teaching policies should be revisited before Hilary term, incorporating lessons learned from Michaelmas term.

Recommendation 2
For those students and staff who have to be on-site, regular testing should be ensured, independent of symptoms.

Recommendation 3
Enhanced cleaning should only be the responsibility of trained staff specifically employed for that role.

Recommendation 4
Ensure adequate ventilation of indoor spaces, including by regularly testing ventilation rates. Monitor ventilation filters and sewage water to identify groups with infected individuals and prevent an outbreak.

Recommendation 5
The University and colleges should ensure disposable face coverings are available at all building entrances.

Recommendation 6
Academic and support staff involved in student welfare should not bear the responsibility for the health and safety of students, financial or otherwise.

Recommendation 7
The University and colleges needs to ensure that staff has all the equipment needed for working from home.

Recommendation 8
Line managers and departments need to consult with staff and communicate return to on-site work policies.

Recommendation 9
Staff needs more support from their line managers and departments to manage remote working.

Recommendation 10
Equality should be taken into consideration when health and safety measures are implemented during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Recommendation 11
Staff must be consulted on how they are involved in the responsibility of teaching and training PGRs.