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December 3rd, 2020:

Essex UCU seek assurance that all work that can be will be done remotely by default in 2021 (3/12/2020)

The following statement was sent to UoE USG from Essex UCU

On 30 October 2020, Essex UCU was mandated by members to declare an official dispute following an inadequate response to our requests (outlined in our open letter of 19 October) to move all student-facing work online by default, publicly correct inaccurate messaging surrounding the University’s Covid-19 antibody tests, and 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. Shortly after we obtained this mandate, the UK government announced a further ‘lockdown’, and the University of Essex moved teaching and some other student-facing work online by default for the remainder of the autumn term.

Essex UCU welcomes the University’s initiative in acting to protect the wellbeing of staff and students despite the lack of a clear steer from the UK government. In addition, we are heartened by the recent introduction of antigen tests, having previously raised our grave concerns about the University’s earlier reliance on antibody tests for Covid screening purposes. In light of these changes of circumstances, Essex UCU branch has not declared a dispute.

However, we are conscious that the next term is less than two months away, and that the University may revert in the spring term to requiring staff to engage in face-to-face work where such work can be done remotely. We are therefore seeking an assurance that this will not happen and hope that the decision made by USG on 8 December will be in line with our call at Essex UCU. Specifically:

We seek assurance that the current status quo will be carried over at least to the whole of the spring term, and preferably for the rest of the academic year. This means that all work that can be done remotely will be done remotely by default. ‘By default’ means that this will be automatically assumed to be the arrangement for all staff whose jobs can be done from home, with deviations only where a staff member requests to work face-to face and where their safety can be adequately protected.

In support of this:

  • SAGE has stated in a 19 November 2020 paper on the ‘Festive Period’ that the ‘prevalence [of Sars-Cov-19] could easily double during a few days of festive season, with further multiplicative increases as new infections go back to their “routine” networks’. A SAGE report on ‘Celebrations and Observances’ (5/11/20) asserts that major celebrations are ‘highly likely to precipitate nationwide increases in transmission particularly when celebrations are also public holidays’. In further documentation (18/11/20), SAGE states: ‘If pre-Christmas prevalence is high and a lot of indoor mixing takes place, the increase in prevalence could be very large indeed. A parallel can be drawn, albeit on a different scale, between the return of students in Autumn and people from different households mixing intensively over Christmas.’
  • We note the UK government’s advice that all who can work from home should continue to do so until April 2020. Our request that working from home apply for the rest of this academic year is roughly in line with this. The position of UCU as a whole is that all members working in HE (including academic-related/professional services staff for example in libraries), FE, ACE and in prisons should be allowed to work from home in line with government public health guidance and with no financial detriment. This also applies to those employed on casualised contracts of any form.
  • Feedback about online teaching has been broadly positive so far, as has been acknowledged by People and Culture, and student-facing staff, academics and students throughout the University of Essex.

We hope to use the time gained through the current suspension of non-essential face-to-face work at Essex to arrive at an agreement that would allay our members’ concerns and prevent a possible re-escalation on this issue of online working by default, which our members overwhelmingly called for in our EGM of 28 October. We note that Northumbria University UCU recently won a ballot for strike action over health and safety relating to Covid-19, with 66.5% of members voting to strike on a turnout of 67.3%. Similarly, Birmingham City University UCU members are demanding a move to online teaching and are prepared to take industrial action as shown by an impressive 60% turnout in their consultative ballot, while the UCU branches at the University of Birmingham and University of Warwick are also about to open ballots for action to move all non-essential working online. Nationally, there is strength of feeling on this issue which we believe has been reflected by Essex UCU members in surveys and meetings conducted by the branch in 2020. Since the pandemic began, the unions and the University have managed to work together successfully in many instances. While we may have differences of opinion on various matters, Essex UCU branch very much hopes to continue to have a good working relationship with the University now and in the future.

Essex UCU