Jo Grady tells TUC a second Covid wave can be prevented, but unions must lead the way

14 September 2020

A second Covid wave is preventable if ministers and universities follow the science and move as much work at colleges and universities as possible online, said UCU general secretary Jo Grady.

Speaking in the debate on safe working practices at the TUC Congress, Jo said unions are the only organisations with the power to keep workplaces and the wider population safe. She said the government has no answers that do not rely on rebooting the economy by asking us to pay with our health.

She said unions are a vehicle for change and it is important everybody joins one. She said that people who show up and say 'enough is enough' can make the difference. She said UCU members are doing this to protect themselves, their students, and education and called on delegates to support their local college and university, and for everyone to pull together to keep us safe.

Last month UCU said that universities' default position should be online learning to avoid risking a major health crisis. The government's own scientific advisers SAGE have now raised concerns about the likelihood of increased cases on campus.

However, last week, the health secretary Matt Hancock said he was concerned about the reopening of universities, but suggested that students would be to blame for any second wave. While the prime minister said students would not be allowed to return home in the event of an outbreak.


Full speech:

This month, millions of students and hundreds of thousands of staff in adult, further and higher education are being pushed to return to in-person study and work on campuses across the UK. 

And yet the government's own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies is telling us to get ready for outbreaks in our institutions. It's warning that the return to in-person working could cause a second wave at the worst time of year for it. But this second wave is preventable. We do not have to live out the awful future that we can see ahead of us. UCU has called for as much work as possible to be done remotely. This will make our workplaces as safe as possible for anyone who does have to be there, and avoid more chaos for learners when things inevitably are forced to move online again. 

We are the ones calling for caution and planning. The government and sector leaders are ploughing ahead because they've constructed a market for education that needs its ultimate consumers - students - to pay fees and rent. 

Unions are the only organisations with the power to keep workplaces and the wider population safe in situations like these. But we need to be clear and realistic about where that power comes from.

The TUC's statement for this Congress on safe working practices sets out measures which outline how workers should be kept safe - if - and it's a big if - the government and employers follow them. But there's a deeper lesson we need to take from the last few months. The real power of our movement lies in mass participation by workers who take the initiative, speak out and act decisively when they know they are in the right.

When UCU members stood by their students last month over the exams fiasco, we demonstrated what can happen when you campaign unapologetically about an injustice. We supported the National Union of Students in their clear, coherent, assertive set of demands. The government saw that and it forced them into a U-turn.

The whole approach of this government to its citizens has been to ignore disaster that is on the horizon. They have no answers that do not rely on rebooting the economy by asking us to pay with our health. They point fingers at minority groups when the consequences of their instructions manifest themselves, and people get sick. Their sole intention is to get the economy going again, but the economy is already broken and does not serve us. 

They may not have answers but we do. We have them on climate change, on economic justice, on anti-racism, and every other challenge we face. Now is the time to talk to everyone you know. Organise with them. Join together, because it is the only way working people have ever defended themselves, protected their communities, and advanced their collective interests. Unions are a vehicle for this and it is very important everybody joins one, but ultimately it is workers that make unions. People who show up and say 'enough'. UCU members are doing this all over the UK. They are doing it to protect themselves, their students, and the sector they love. Please support your local college and university in this. We need everyone to pull together to keep the whole of the UK safe.

Last updated: 17 September 2020