UCL-UCU: Term 2, the Omicron surge, H&S on Campus + Emergency General Meeting, Thurs 13 Jan, 1-2pm

6 January 2022

We are writing to update colleagues on discussions with UCL regarding planning for Term 2. 

Dear UCL UCU member,

Colleagues will have seen UCL’s message in its Coronavirus Update today. We are disappointed, although not surprised, that UCL management has taken the current line, and that they failed to accept UCU’s position on keeping staff and students safe.

We are calling an (online) Emergency General Meeting for next Thursday 13 January, 1-2pm to discuss the situation. 

At the end of last year we wrote to UCL with a ‘Failure to Agree’ letter, warning that Management is risking a dispute over health and safety if they did not take steps to keep staff safe. We will need to decide our next steps at that meeting.

The university sector is under pressure from the Government to maintain face-to-face teaching irrespective of Omicron infection levels. However, the current wave is not dying down after the Christmas break (ONS reports a 10% prevalence in London), and is indeed likely to surge as workplaces and schools reopen.

We met with UCL management representatives yesterday to discuss our ‘Failure to Agree’ letter. We pressed for a plan to return to online teaching for the month of January, while keeping the situation under review. This was for three reasons:

  1. The likely course of the Omicron wave, with staff self-isolating, or caring for dependents, possible school closures etc., will make online teaching increasingly inevitable.
  2. The risks to individuals from contracting Covid are not negligible. Even if the risks of hospitalisation and death are somewhat lower than Delta, the long-term effects of Omicron (‘long Covid’) are not known. Not everyone is triple-vaccinated, and around half of our students are likely not to be.
  3. There will be a high workload generated by the inevitable blended teaching and repeat classes that will arise as a result of students and staff self-isolating.

This position is consistent with UCL’s Education Operating Model for this year, which stated that “[a] resurgence of coronavirus is always a possibility at some point in the next academic year” and anticipated a switch to online teaching in that eventuality.

UCL’s current Health and Safety Risk Assessments take as their starting point that the overall prevalence rate is low: this made class sizes of up to 35 feasible. But with a 10% prevalence rate, assuming as few as 1 in 20 are asymptomatic and slip through the ‘net’ and attend a class, the chance of at least 1 in a group of 35 having Covid is at least 16%. Larger class sizes, meeting indoors on campus, and aerosol transmission combine to create a substantial hazard. 

Splitting classes into two and teaching twice may reduce the risk for students and allow them to sit further apart, but staff will then have increased workload and twice the number of encounters.

Mandatory mask-wearing and regular lateral flow testing will tighten the net (UCL recommends at least twice-weekly, but daily testing is better). However, the prevalence rate is high and rapidly increasing.

What you can do

UCL has said that they will view anyone with, or anyone living with, a compromised immune system as automatically entitled to work from home. 

Other staff who have concerns for their health should talk to their GP or medical practitioner, and ask their line manager about the individual health risk assessment process. UCU has published template letters for sending to managers

The Government’s guidance stresses the importance of working from home, but then treats all university teaching as necessarily conducted in-person. We believe that staff can and should use their professional judgement as to whether or not face-to-face teaching is truly necessary, especially in the face of escalating risks to health for themselves, their families and their students. 

Where staff are expected to teach classes twice, once in person and once remotely, this is also a significant workload issue, which may mean (for example) that PGTA staff whose pay is based on accounting by the hour, should be paid for the additional hours.

UCL is legally responsible for staff and students’ health and safety, including when working from home or on campus. As indicated above, a major risk is large classes, especially in poorly ventilated spaces. Some of these have been improved, but UCL’s estate is large, and ventilation is still a work in progress. We would recommend that where staff have been teaching in rooms they previously viewed as only partially satisfactory, or where staff have been teaching large classes, that they ask for these to be reviewed by the department. If you have an opportunity this week, it is worth inspecting yourself.

All UCL staff have a right to protect themselves  and our students. Under the Employment Rights Act 1996, s44(1A)(b), all staff (including contracted workers) have the right to leave a workplace they reasonably believe to be a ‘serious and imminent’ risk to health. Therefore if you reasonably believe your workspace is unsafe, you should remove yourself from the source of the risk and report this immediately to your line manager. If ventilation is deficient you should also report this on Risknet.

General Meeting

We believe that it is unacceptable that staff are being put in a position of having to make individual decisions and interventions. As a UCU branch we will need to collectively consider our next steps. As noted above, before Christmas we filed a ‘failure to agree’ letter with UCL, which is the first step in formally moving towards declaring a trade dispute with UCL.

We are therefore calling a UCU Emergency General Meeting on Thursday 13th January to discuss our next steps if UCL does not change its position by this point. This meeting will be open to all UCU members.

UCL UCU Executive Committee


UCL UCU website

UCL UCU facebook page