Below is a letter written by Goldsmiths staff member Dr Caspar Addyman, which other staff are free to reuse, adapt and share:
I am writing to register my concern about rapidly rising rates of positive COVID-19 cases on campus and how this changes the plans for next weeks teaching. I have two face to face tutorials planned for Tuesday, 9th October with a third year group (7 students) and second year group (15 students).
In the light of the 24-28 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases at Goldsmiths as of 9th October, I request permission to conduct both of these classes online both this coming week and until such time as the rate of new cases remains at less than 5 per week for two consecutive weeks.
Below I set out my reasons for this request and a number of queries that I feel must be addressed in any response.
I have seen a copy of the university’s and the department’s risk assessment given to us on 23rd September and I do not believe that they give a realistic assessment of the present risks.
Both risk assessments worked on the assumption that with mitigation Goldsmiths would be COVID-safe. The 20 new cases this week suggest that is not true. At the very least, it calls into question the setting of risk levels at 1 (Very unlikely) for all Risks. As a psychologist I would say that a 1% chance was very unlikely but this Risk Assessment concerns a deadly pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, therefore I imagine that a more conservative level of might be applied in this case. Therefore:
Q1. Before I can accept these Risk Assessments as a useful guide to reality, I would like to know what ballpark percentage is put on a very unlikely risk?
Q2. Is the college still maintaining that all these risks are very unlikely? If not can we have an updated risk assessment.
Additionally, collectively we raised many queries about the Risk Assessments in an email chain on 23rd September 2020 entitled Psychology Departmental Risk Assessment. These do not appear to have been followed up on.
Q3. Could you let us know if any of these queries have been forwarded to the relevant people and if they have been answered?
If these queries were lost in the fog of term beginning I would be happy to resubmit my questions but would ask that all other members of department are requested to give their comments again too.
If not now, when?
Over and above the contents of the risk assessments I think there is a more general point about quantifying and confronting risk. Even if the situation is judged safe now, there still needs to be a public pre-commitment to what the college considers to be an unsafe environment. How many cases per week isn’t safe? There should planning and forethought attached to actual numbers so that action can be take swiftly and staff and students can feel at least some sense of security. It is important this done before the situation on the ground overtakes the plans that were made many weeks ago.
There is now an abundance of data on what is too late from the many America and British universities who are in a further advanced state of infection. We should make use of this information to draw a line that we will not cross.
Q4. How many cases do there have to be a week before we consider ourselves unsafe?
The Office for National Statistics suggests that for every reported case in the general population there are 10 unreported cases. This is a useful guideline and should make us very cautious when interpreting the headline figure of 24-28 cases. It is understandable that college will only publish confirmed cases but we are no doubt operating with a belief that the actual number of cases is higher than this. The rapid spread seen at other colleges and closed networks of college campus suggests that either the undetected rate or the effective rate of transmission (R) or both will be higher in campus.
Q5. What working assumptions are made about the real rate of infection and transmission?
We were told that there were less than five positive cases as of last Friday and that there are 24-28 now. This is entirely consistent with an exponential rate of growth and assuming it continues at this rate of 5 fold increase per week we might perhaps expect everyone in Goldsmiths to infected within 3 to 4 weeks. Every day of delay in acting has consequences for everyone’s health.
The relatively small numbers today should not offer any reassurance we won’t go the same way as dozens of other institutions. And until such a time as there is a vaccine or everyone in Goldsmiths has been infected then this risk remains active. Therefore, there needs to be some measure we are not in a period of exponential infection. Which is why I suggest that face to face teaching be suspended until the rate of new cases remains at less than 5 per week for two consecutive weeks.
Q6. If you or the college disagrees with this, what alternative formulation do you have?
In both my teaching groups I have students who can only attend online. Reports from colleagues who have already been running face to face classes suggest that this compromise situation of a mixture of live and online attendees is detrimental to both. We also know that teach can be delivered effectively online.
Q7. Why rush to back to the classroom in this time of uncertainty?
We have promised students face to face teaching will be part of their experience but that promise was made subject to caveats about health and safety. And it did not promise that it had to happen every week.
Q8. Why not say that face to face classes will take place later in the term or even next term?
If the response is that if we delay face to face teaching then we might not we might not be able to meet the full quota. Built into that claim is an assumption that things are not going back to normal any time soon (that they may even get worse). If so, then I only ask all the question I previously posed about what concrete numbers are being put into the decision-making process about closing and/or reopening the college.
At present, there seems to be a conspicuous lack of leadership on this issue. I get the impression that no-one is looking forwards. That planning is either reactive, optimistic or avoidant. Either college is waiting for some as yet unspecified event or they are hoping that the decision is taken out of their hands by governmental changes. I can understand it is a daunting position to be in but ultimately our lives are in our leaders hands and they need to take ownership of that.
The risk assessments are fixed documents that looked at the situation at a single point in time. Yet clearly the reality is fast moving and ever changing. Risk Assessments aren’t designed to capture that aspect of the situation. At least ours don’t seem to be. Therefore, there must be some accompanying planning that thinks about what happens next. I feel that we have right to know that too.
Q9. What are Goldsmiths own projected numbers of infections?
Q10. What are our best case and worst case scenarios?
“The legal bit.”
The applicable guidance
I refer you to the guidance document, “Principles and Considerations: Emerging From Lockdown” issued by Universities UK to institutions, and the Appendix to that document which contains a jointly agreed statement between UCEA and the HE trade unions including UCU, of which I am a member. The guidance document states:
The health, safety and wellbeing of students, staff, visitors, and the wider
community will be the priority in decisions relating to the easing of Covid-19
restrictions in universities.
Universities will review their teaching, learning and assessment to ensure that
there is the required flexibility in place to deliver a high-quality experience and
support students to achieve their learning outcomes in a safe manner.
Consider….How and under what circumstances it may be appropriate for staff to work
Universities will regularly review the welfare and mental health needs of students
and staff and take steps to ensure preventative measures and appropriate
support are in place and well communicated as restrictions are eased.
This guidance requires you to put the health, safety and wellbeing of staff (and students) first when making decisions about returning to face to face working and to consider individual risk assessments in particular for mental health harms, and consider under what circumstances staff can be enabled to deliver a high quality learning experience for students remotely. I do not believe that the risk assessment for the institution which I have been shown has done this adequately.
Health and safety at work
You will be aware that under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 the University is required as my employer to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of employees to which they are exposed whilst they are at work (Regulation 3). Outside the workplace I have of course been working from home, associating with a very small number of people and [mention any other relevant precautions eg getting someone else to do the shopping]. I request that you fulfill your duty to assess the risk to me whilst I am at work and take preventative and protective measures by allowing me to continue to work remotely and deliver my teaching online.
As you are aware, you also have a duty under Regulation 8 to provide me with a procedure to follow in the event of serious and imminent danger to enable me to stop work in the presence of such a danger and proceed to a place of safety. I request that you fulfill this duty by allowing me to continue to work remotely and deliver my teaching online.
As my employer you have an actionable duty of care to guard against foreseeable harm to me as your employee. As set out above, there is a foreseeable risk of harm to me by way of serious risk of illness from Covid 19 if I have to return to working in the workplace and I believe that you would be in breach of your duty of care to require me to do so.
As evidenced by the UCEA guidance mentioned above, you are also aware of the risks to the mental health of staff. I believe you would be in breach of your duty of care to require me to resume working in the workplace given the distress this proposal is causing me, and that any harm to my mental health in these circumstances is foreseeable.
I would just remind you that I am protected by section 47B Employment Rights Act 1996 from any detriment on the grounds of having informed you about these potential breaches of your legal obligations and endangerment of health and safety.
I would be grateful to receive confirmation that I may continue to work remotely, or a full written response to my concerns as set out above, and in the meantime for your confirmation that I may continue to work remotely whilst I await this response.