OPEN LETTER TO THE VICE-CHANCELLOR FROM UCU ESSEX (19 Oct 2020)
The Covid-19 crisis in the UK is out of control, with UK universities proving anything but immune from outbreaks. So far 115 universities have reported cases, some reporting hundreds of cases among staff and students, with UEA reporting a total of 87 cases on 16 October 2020. More universities are sure to follow. It is clear that there is no such thing as a ‘Covid-secure’ campus.
Nationally, the R number has risen to 1.3-1.6. We know that infection rates among 18-24 year olds have been running at almost twice the national average. We also know that Covid-19 poses a greater risk to Black and Asian communities and that in recent years approximately 40 percent of our student body has come from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background. In addition, many UoE students commute from London which, alongside Essex, has entered Tier 2 restrictions, and stands at a “very worrying tipping point” in the words of its mayor.
UoE owes a duty of care to staff, students, their families and the wider community to stem the further spread of the virus. We are concerned that UoE’s reported cases are likely to be underestimates given UoE’s reliance on antibody testing which is unable to detect people with Covid-19 in the early stages of their infection. UoE now needs to take decisive action to fulfil a duty of care to its community. This cannot be achieved under its current measures.
We therefore urge you to put in place the following measures immediately:
- Move all student-facing work online by default, with exceptions for work that cannot be carried out online and for staff who freely choose to opt in to work on campus. Our demand on this front falls only slightly short of ‘Enhanced Protection’ measures UoE had in place in the summer, when the R no. and infection levels were far lower.
- Publicly correct inaccurate messaging surrounding the University’s Covid-19 antibody tests. On 9/10/2020, UCU Essex Committee sent a letter to the Vice Chancellor noting the worrying spread of potentially dangerous misinformation about the meaning of a “negative” result on these tests, some coming via official University channels. While some misleading messages have now been deleted, we reassert our call for a public correction of these inaccuracies in the interests of public health.
- Allow students in university accommodation to return home in a safe and managed way, providing rent fee rebates for those who chose to do so. This means offering antigen testing to all students so that Covid-negative students can go home safely if they desire. In addition, we urge you to join with us in calling for the government to provide funding to cover the loss of rental income.
The longer these decisions are delayed, the greater the danger of disseminating Covid-19 to staff, students, their families and the wider community. The situation is increasingly grave. Before it is too late, we urge you to act decisively. Please could you respond to our letter by 26 October 2020. If we do not receive a satisfactory response by this date, we will consider, among other options, declaring ourselves in official dispute with UoE.
 Riley S, Ainslie KEC, Eales O, Walters CE, Wang H, Atchison CJ, et al., Resurgence of SARS-CoV-2 in England: detection by community antigen surveillance. medRxiv 11.9. 2020.