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UCU raises Covid safety fears with England's largest prison education provider

13 January 2021

UCU lodged a failure to agree notice with Novus, the company responsible for education provision at over 50 prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales. The notice was lodged after education staff raised serious Covid-19 safety concerns with the union.

The dispute centres on Novus's failure to meaningfully engage with UCU's Covid-19 safety concerns during the latest lockdown. The notice means Novus must meet with UCU within 10 working days to avoid entering into a dispute. It gives the union a strong mandate to push Novus to begin engaging with staff over their concerns. If Novus continues to ignore staff concerns, the union will be forced to declare a dispute and will then consult with members over taking industrial action.

The failure to agree comes after Novus UCU branch members who attended a virtual emergency meeting on Monday voted overwhelmingly to escalate their health and safety concerns. UCU had previously written to Novus after the government set out new guidelines for prisons as part of the latest lockdown. In the letter the union set out a number of demands to make sure education is delivered safely, such as engaging with the union on new risk assessments, which take account of the new more virulent variant of Covid.

The chief executive of Novus, John Thornhill, emailed staff just before the union's emergency meeting claiming UCU was wrong to say Novus is not following the new government guidelines. In the email he alleges that UCU's demands are untested and Novus's existing risk assessments are sufficient. He also said that Novus has 'to balance the safety of staff with government expectations', with which it has a contract to deliver learning to offenders. Today Mr Thornhill tweeted that UCU was creating stress and anxiety by deliberately misinforming prison educators.

UCU said Novus was choosing to put the delivery of contracts over staff and prisoner safety and that unless the company addressed its concerns it would consult with members over industrial action.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'Prison educators have done all they can to continue to support offenders throughout the Covid pandemic, all they are asking in return is for their employer to listen to safety concerns and reduce the risk of staff and learners catching Covid. It is incredible that instead of engaging with us, Novus chief executive John Thornhill has said that risk assessments put in place prior to the latest Covid wave, the discovery of the new Covid variant, and the most recent national lockdown are sufficient to protect his staff.

'There is huge concern from staff that Mr Thornhill is willing to risk their safety to deliver on government contracts. Staff and learners are being put at risk due to Novus' refusal to engage with us over how prison education can be delivered safely. Unless Novus comes to the table and engages with our demands, we will be forced to declare a dispute to protect staff and will then consult members over taking industrial action. Mr Thornhill should be concentrating on addressing staff concerns, rather than making baseless accusations on Twitter.'

Last updated: 13 January 2021