Students Staff
University of Essex

May 7, 2020

Planning for our return to campus-based working

Dear colleagues and students,

Talking to colleagues, I know that many of us are anxious about returning to work on our campuses and keen to know how we are going to manage a process of phased return, that prioritises the safety, health and well-being of our staff and students. You may also have seen reports in the national press over the last 24 hours that the Prime Minister will make an announcement about the Government’s “roadmap” for lifting the lockdown on Sunday 10th May. The key headline I want to share is that other than essential staff currently working on our campuses, you should continue to work from home until, as a University community, we are confident that we can manage a phased return to campus-based working, that keeps our students and staff safe.

First and foremost, whilst we will always take UK Government advice into account in shaping the actions of the University, our approach goes beyond merely obeying the law of the land. We are absolutely committed to doing all that we can to safeguard the health and well-being of staff and students. This is why, despite some criticism, we implemented our ‘Enhanced Protection’ measures on 16th March, suspending all face-to-face delivery of teaching and supervision, in advance of the Government’s lockdown of the UK on 23rd March. Whatever the Government says over the weekend, we will not be announcing a phased return to campus based working next week (11th – 15th May).

Second, we know that the trust and confidence that our community have in our plans to return to campus-based work and study will play a key role in ensuring that, when the time is right for a phased return, people feel willing and able to return to campus-based working. This is true for those of us who continue to work on our campuses in an environment where only 1,500 staff and students are currently on the Colchester campus – as well as for staff and students who have been off campus working from home. A key feature of our approach is to publish detailed plans to managing our campuses during the pandemic. Our ‘Enhanced’ and ‘Advanced’ Protection Plans are available on our website, so that everyone can clearly see the actions we are taking to protect the safety of our community, and so that we can benefit from your feedback on our approach. We will continue to adopt this approach: we will publish the next set of detailed plans for a phased return to campus-based working as soon as these are ready. We will also continue to work very closely with all three of our campus trades unions, noting TUC and sector-based union advice and other sector guidance from bodies such as Universities UK and the Society of College, National and University Libraries. We are also working with the S10 Group, a group of 10 campus-based universities in the south of England and we will also draw on experiences of return-to-work planning from organisations and sectors outside Higher Education when we meet with our external Council members at our Council Away Day next Monday. We haven’t got all the answers and we want your views on what you would like to see included – and on how we can best provide assurance to you. Please feel free to email us at covid19@essex.ac.uk if you have views that you would like to share.

Our approach will recognise the personal circumstances of staff and students. This includes specific consideration of health risks for our staff, including a colleague’s own underlying medical conditions and for those of us who live with people who may be shielding, self-isolating or, themselves, have underlying conditions. Our approach also includes us ensuring that we will protect your health in a variety of physical locations, such as teaching rooms, offices, accommodation, retail and catering outlets and entry and exiting of physical spaces. Equality, diversity and inclusion issues will be at the forefront of our minds and our plans subject to an equality impact assessment/COVID-19 risk assessment. We will also consult with health and safety representatives of our three campus trades unions, before finalising our plans.

It is most likely that the Government will adopt an approach of progressively loosening of lockdown restrictions. I want to assure you that we will begin to implement our plans for phased return to our campuses only when we can do so safely. Instead of my weekly email next week, Bryn Morris, our Registrar and Secretary will send an all staff email to share our draft plans and seek your feedback.

Finally, we are also reviewing all aspects of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) needs across the various environments in which we may need to work and to ensure PPE matches the personal circumstances that each of us might have. This includes: the adequate provision of PPE such as face masks/gloves; ensuring that we embrace sustainable solutions; and that, in looking after our needs, we do not take vital equipment away from the NHS, health and social care sectors and other emergency services. In addition, we are looking at the layout of facilities, how our staff and students can work safely in shared offices and navigate around campus with minimum congestion; and how we can best highlight our community’s expectations of individual staff and students in terms of social distancing, hand washing, the use of hand sanitizers and so on. We are also looking at a wide range of issues related to travel to and from our places of work.

In advance of any Government announcement, I hope this provides an update on our general approach and reassurance that, whilst we all want to return to campus-based working, it has to be in circumstances where risks are managed carefully and our staff and students have confidence that you will be safe.

I hope you have a good break over the early May Bank Holiday and that you and your families stay safe and well.

Anthony Forster

Vice-Chancellor

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