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Covid-19 prisons

Update on the current situation across our branches

18 January 2021

I am writing with a brief update to the current situation across our branches following the all member meeting of 7 January and the demands that UCU set out to employers to keep our members safe on site.

Weston College

One of the most positive responses to have been received from Weston who continue to have a sensible and cautious approach to staff attendance across their prisons. We have established weekly health and safety meetings for each Lot with UCU involvement and a positive response to UCU's demands. This includes:

  • skeleton staffing
  • wing attendance limited to a few prisons to deliver/collect in-cell packs and only in patrol state, if safe and covid free, again activity subject to RA and SSOW
  • no face to face teaching with the exception of industrial cleaning and enrolments at one establishment with appropriate controls and SSOW in place
  • full review of RA's already done and will be reviewed on a weekly basis
  • all risk assessments posted on Teams for each prison so staff can view and request amendments
  • all near misses and incidents reported to UCU as requested
  • bubble rotas
  • presence on site has to be with a learner focus (marking, ILPs, comms etc) no needless attendance as operating under govt guidelines of working from home wherever possible
  • face masks compulsory unless lone working
  • clinically vulnerable all individual RAs been done and reasonable adjustments in place (including working from home)
  • travel to work assessed.

Milton Keynes College

A good response to UCU's demands letter with a robust and transparranet review system in place working with UCU branch representatives on a weekly basis with urgent escalation issues picked up when necessary. Approach at MKC sites include:

  • limited face-to-face teaching - one industrial cleaning class with two more planned to start next week subject to full risk assessments and safe systems of work in place
  • wing attendance limited to a few prisons to deliver/collect in-cell packs and only in patrol state, if safe and covid free, again activity subject to RA and SSOW
  • where education staff are required/permitted on site, skeleton staffing is observed (max 4-8)
  • review of risk assessments (and safe systems of work if required), in the light of the new strain of the pandemic. This will include a review of numbers on site, to ensure that attendance is essential and cleaning standards
  • strict adherence to bubble rotas
  • wearing of face masks to be mandatory
  • essential duties only that are necessary to meet operational requirements with any work that can be produced off site being carried out off site
  • essential learner focus attendance as per UCU definition but to also include work to support the preparation for the ISO 27001 accreditation which is part of the PEF contract.
  • education staff should not attend where a high standard of cleaning is not taking place
  • all staff are mandated to wear FFP2 face masks and we have supplied these
  • ongoing discussions re NDIR monitors
  • copies of all investigation reports of near misses and incidents of Covid-19 cases provided to UCU branch officers
  • staff who are clinically vulnerable will not be expected to attend site, unless they wish to do so, and we assess it to be covid-safe.

Sally Alexander, principal, said: 'We consult on any changes to risk assessments, safe systems of work, escalations raised by staff and ways of working with our local UCU branch, who we meet with on a weekly basis.

'We are aware that at times our processes may not be adhered to locally. When we are made aware of this through the escalation process, we will address as a matter of urgency.'


In response to our letter PeoplePlus (PP) have convened an emergency health and safety committee to go through our demands and therefore a decision has been made to delay submission of the 'failure to agree' which was voted through at an emergency branch meeting last week by 93% of members in attendance (56 for, 4 against).

GIven the high number of members contacting UCU regarding concerns about their safety and reports given of working conditions at PP establishments, including attendance on wings with Covid outbreaks, if sufficient progress is not made this week, then we will have no other choice but to issue the failure to agree.


Following the shocking memo and attempts at intimidating union members working for Novus by the CEO of LTE group on Monday 11 January, a packed online branch meeting overwhelmingly voted in favour of a failure to agree by 91% (135 for, 15 against). You can read about the dispute here.

Novus had previously stated that despite prisons being at a level 4 state as set out in Gold Command briefing - they were still expecting staff to deliver face-to-face teaching on wings. Branch officers and reps are reporting that near misses and incidents are not being acted upon in a timely manner (if at all) and many members are having to undertake their own cleaning on sites including toilets and wash facilities. Incidents include Covid positive learners being brought in to education in YOIs on at least two occasions and failure of basic controls such as social distancing and access to sanitisers. Despite near misses going in especially around lack of cleaning (a fundamental control measure in the risk assessments) little to no action is taking place.

Mr Thornhill has stated that he is refusing to meet with UCU representatives. Unison have indicated their support for UCU's position in a letter to Mr Thornhill on Friday last week.

An indicative ballot will be issued this week to all Novus members as a precursor to industrial action keep your eyes on your in-boxes.

The Novus AGM is also being held on Friday 22 January, where it is expected a vote of no confidence in the CEO following his receipt and processing of a video which was recorded without consent of a private UCU meeting, will be debated.

Unlawful recording of UCU prison education meeting

UCU is currently investigating the unlawful recording of the union meeting on 7 January and has written to both Mr Thornhill and the Information Commissioners Office. Obtaining, disclosure and retention of personal data without the consent of the data controller may be an offence under section 170 of the DPA 2018. The union also wishes to assure all members that it will vigorously defend any member who is subjected to any threat of detriment by their employer as a result of the use by their employer of personal data obtained from this unlawful recording.

YCS estate update

Advice is currently being drafted following receipt of Public Health England advice re Covid-19 safety in YOI's and data obtained by UCU via parliamentary questions which shows that teachers in YCS prisons are five times more likely to be subjected to an assault than on the adult estate.

Prison educators' safety was also raised in the main Covid-19 debate last week by Catherine West MP following lobbying by UCU - you can see that here:

If you require any support or if you are unhappy that the approach at your establishment is not reflective of what is set out above, please contact your local or branch representative for advice. If you are unsure as to who this is, email

We are also continuing to press for a furlough type arrangement with all providers for those staff with caring responsibilities and on a no detriment basis.

Remember there are many resources available on the website, including template letters to employers if you feel that you are not safe on site; safety posters and links to all previous updates here.

Marianne Quick
UCU bargaining & negotiations official
(Climate & sustainability/prison education)

Last updated: 18 January 2021