Uni accused of refusing to protect immunocompromised staff

Lilla Marshall reports on the latest news surrounding Newcastle University and COVID-19...

Lilla Marshall
13th March 2020
Image: Pixabay

Newcastle UCU have publicly accused Vice-Chancellor Chris Day of not doing enough to protect staff from COVID-19.

The accusation comes after a member of staff, who is immunosuppressed, was allegedly told by the university that they could not move their teaching sessions online because "the University is business as usual".

The email also states that the lecturer should "discuss it with their GP or occupational therapy".

The World Health Organisation (WHO) have stated that the people most at risk of COVID-19 infections are children, pregnant women, elderly, those with underlying chronic medical conditions and those who are immunosuppressed - which has led to many online questioning this decision.

Current government policy is that universities and schools should stay open, with anyone displaying symptoms of the virus being advised to self-quarantine. Despite this advice, however, Northumbria University and Durham University have both decided to move lectures online to minimise the spread of the coronavirus.

Dr Joshua Jowitt, a law lecturer at Newcastle University tweeted in response to the UCU's accusations, "My employer is now putting my colleagues' lives at risk. That's how little we are valued as employees."

Dr Geoff Poole, a senior lecturer in Linguistics at the university also responded to the incident, tweeting "OK, this is now officially f****** embarrassing -- well above and beyond the usual spinelessness."

Many online are accusing the university of breaking the Health and Safety Act of 1974, which states: "in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which he could not reasonably have been expected to avert, he left (or proposed to leave)...". Some are also claiming that this is the rejection of a reasonable adjustment for a disabled person, which could breach the Equality Act 2010.

Dr Christine Cuskley, a lecturer in Language and Cognition at Newcastle, has called on the union to fight against this decision, suggesting online that "a good way to prevent this might be for all lecturers to refuse to give face to face lectures. If the university won't act, can we?"

The incident has happened on the last day of the UCU strikes, which took place over 14 days - due to a pension dispute between the union and the university's senior leadership.

The university has not yet responded to these allegations.

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