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Call for immediate action to protect staff, students and local community at Northumbria and Newcastle universities

22 September 2020

Members of the UCU at Northumbria University and Newcastle University have called for their institutions to abandon in-person teaching.

In a letter to the universities, the local UCU branches said they had serious concerns that the universities' Covid outbreak plans did not involve reporting cases on campus or among staff and students to health and safety reps, as is expected by law/guidance.  

The branches were responding to a joint message from the universities' vice-chancellors, which encouraged students to move to Newcastle and assured them that none of the Covid measures would impact on the quality of their education. In response the union said the reassurances were a surprise considering the Covid restrictions in the region, the problems with test and trace, and the increasing infection rate.

UCU regional official Iain Owens said: 'Newcastle's universities have to immediately heed the call from staff and halt unnecessary in-person teaching. The safety of staff, students and the local community has to be the number one priority.

'Given the current restrictions in the region, the direction of the infection rate and the problems with test and trace, it is clearly far too soon for a mass return to campus. As civic universities, we have a responsibility to our city to ensure against a community overspill and that students are not scapegoated for a rise in the infection rate.

'More widely, the university sector and the government must address this public health crisis immediately. It is not enough to plan to manage Covid outbreaks when we could be working to prevent them. 

'We have been warning for weeks of the dangers of universities persisting with in-person teaching, especially without a UK-wide track and trace system and regular testing of students and staff. Without urgent action, it will be impossible for universities to avoid becoming incubators of Covid and university communities becoming transmission hotspots.'

This morning, the government has called on staff to work from home where they are able. Yesterday Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned of 50,000 new Covid-19 cases a day by mid-October, leading to 200 deaths a day a month later if the current rate of infection was not halted. 

The union has previously called for online learning to be universities' default position in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.

Last week, UCU launched a monitoring system for its members to contact the union directly with concerns they had about their institutions' plans to deal with the Covid threat. The union said it would name universities and colleges that were not up to scratch and any institution not preparing to deal with a local outbreak was in denial about the severity of the challenges they would most likely face.

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