Many of you will be aware that our local UCU branch has written an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor outlining three concerns in three areas: student-facing activity on campuses; media reports about our Covid-19 testing regime; and rebates for student accommodation. We are confident that our response to the Covid-19 pandemic is robust and although all of our recognised trade unions have worked closely with us on establishing Covid- secure campuses, we understand that not all staff and students may be familiar with the detail. Our response to UCU is here for you all to read.
Many thanks for your open letter http://www.ucu.essex.ac.uk/2020/10/19/open-letter-to-uoe-vc-from-ucu-essex-19-oct-2020/ dated 19th October. The Vice-Chancellor has asked me to respond to your letter on his behalf and I will cover the points in turn below:
1. Move of student-facing work online by default
The number of current positive COVID-19 cases on our University of Essex campuses, as of 20th October, is 6. Evidence suggests that our campuses are COVID secure environments. We recognise that some staff are concerned about working on our campuses. The University’s position therefore remains one of flexibility. Recognising that some staff are anxious, we have said that staff in this position should discuss with their line manager, the option of working from home where this is possible. Where no agreement is reached, the matter should be referred to me, as Director of People and Culture. I would like to continue to emphasise that we wish to be as flexible as possible.
On 19th October, I reviewed the current position including: the move of the Essex County Council region to Tier 2 (high alert level) on 17th October (noting Southend remains in Tier 1); infection rates in the region, in the local communities in which our campuses are located and amongst University staff and students; and behaviour on our campuses and in accommodation. The latest position is published on our dashboard at https://www.essex.ac.uk/covid-19/dashboard.
Having considered a range of factors, I have recommended to the Vice-Chancellor and Chair of Council that we do not bring the Phase 2 cohort of students back to our campuses on 2nd November. This is to ensure that we can continue to successfully manage the risks posed by COVID-19. A formal decision will be made on 23rd October and communicated to all staff and to students on 26th October.
We will continue to review our approach weekly and, in doing so, consider changes to government policy; experience elsewhere, including other universities both in the UK and internationally; and changes to our local circumstances. I am committed to communicating updates or changes to our position in a timely manner, whether they relate to the University as a whole, or are specific to one or more of our campuses.
2. Antibody testing.
The University’s testing regime, providing a voluntary Rapid COVID-19 IgM/IgG antibody test on our campuses, has been in operation since 24th September 2020. Since then, over 6,312 tests have been administered on asymptomatic members of the University community, across all three campuses. These tests primarily identify two types of antibodies in the individual. Where an IgM antibody is detected, the individual is advised to obtain a PCR swab test. This approach has resulted in our being able to advise individuals to self-isolate where they may otherwise have not been doing so, and thus slow the spread of the virus.
The teams in our testing centres were issued with scripts produced by our own clinical team. It is therefore regrettable to hear that on some occasions, the full scripted text was not delivered. The teams staffing the testing centres have had the importance of using scripts drawn to their attention and have been told to ensure that a full explanation is provided to each person tested. I regret this situation has arisen, but having made enquiries, this is nothing more than human error and not action intended to mislead. My personal experience on visiting the Colchester test centre, on 16th October, confirmed that the team was conscientiously delivering accurate messages around results.
Where the nature of the tests has been inaccurately or not fully been described on social media, the University has contacted colleagues to point this out. In addition, the University has also made clear through social media and the web, the nature of tests – and that antibody testing is one element of our plans to keep out campuses COVID-19 secure. Our antibody testing is supported by rapid antigen swab tests or a PCR test where needed. An explanation of test results is on our COVID-19 web pages at https://www.essex.ac.uk/news/2020/10/01/covid-19-testing-launched-at-university-of-essex and therefore available to everyone in our community. As you note in your letter, the misleading social media posts have been taken down.
As part of our screening plans, everyone who has had a test is being invited back for a second follow-up test and this will provide an opportunity for the nature of the test result to be made clear to them again. The University will continue to use all its communication channels to ensure the nature of the tests and an individual’s results are fully understood. As you know from the discussions with which you and local UCU Branch Officers have been involved, the more widespread availability of antigen tests has led us to plan to supplement our IgM/IgG antibody testing with antigen testing on our campuses in the very near future and we will continue to evolve our approach in the light of new medical developments.
3. Student accommodation and supporting students to return home in a safe managed way
From the start of the academic year, our accommodation policy was designed to be flexible for students who have chosen to delay their arrival to campuses or for students who wish to be released from accommodation agreements. This included allowing students to ask to hold their accommodation for late arrival (without cost); offering rent rebates to students who have paid their rent and decided to leave; and allowing contract breaks if students wish to move out of their accommodation for a short period but do not want to end their contract. Therefore, the action you request has been in place for some time at Essex. You ask the University to join with UCU in calling for the government to provide funding to cover the loss of rental income. In July the University said that we would consider a joint public statement. This offer remains open and I am happy to discuss with you what the content of such a statement might be.
Your open letter raises important points and I have arranged for my reply to be included in Essex Weekly, with a link to my all staff email of 21st October. In addition to our fortnightly meetings, I remain available to meet with you as you might feel necessary, as we work in partnership to keep our staff and students safe.
Director of People and Culture