COVID-19 advice for HE staff

Safer universities, safer jobs – UNISON advice for Higher Education members

We know that many staff will be worried and anxious during this time, and UNISON is working across the UK to ensure that your university campuses are as safe as possible and to ensure that your job and income are protected too.

You can find the latest government advice here:

What is UNISON doing?

UNISON is working with national employers, local employers and governments to protect university employees. During the first lockdown, UNISON agreed a national statement with UCEA, the national higher education employers, when the lockdown happened. This joint statement makes it clear that universities should work closely with the campus unions to navigate staffing issues that arise from COVID-19.

The national employers and joint unions have produced a joint statement on vaccinations that you can read on the link below. This encourages everyone to have the COVID vaccine when they are offered it.

Joint statement on vaccination

The national employers and joint unions have also produced a joint statement on testing that you can read at the link below. This encourages everyone to regularly use the COVID tests make sure that your workplaces are as safe as possible. The statement makes it clear that testing does not reduce the need to have adequate health and safety measures in place on campus.

Joint statement on testing

Risk assessments at your university

UNISON has produced detailed guidance on conducting risk assessments to support branches and reps who are involved with this.

COVID-19 Risk assessment

The national HE employers have agreed with the HE trade unions that risk assessments must continue to be at the heart of working in higher education. This joint national agreement embeds these principles as well as confirming that unions must be consulted and the equality impact needs to be an integral part of the process.

Joint union agreement on safe working during pandemic


You can find HE sector updates from the devolved nations at these links:

What if I have a question?

UNISON has produced some FAQs below setting out the latest advice for university staff working in England and Wales. They cover pay, operational issues, health and safety, home working and furlough.

For more general information about your rights at work during this health emergency please visit our dedicated web page.

My rights at work

For queries relating to local pay, terms and conditions issues, please contact your local UNISON branch.

Find my branch

We would like to assure you that across the UK – at workplace, branch, regional and national levels – UNISON is at the heart of the discussions and raising your issues and concerns directly with governments and employers.

UNISON is here for you.

Jump to FAQs for HE staff


  • Advice for branches

    What steps can UNISON take locally?

    UNISON branches have been advised to take the following steps with university employers. Below is a summary of the steps outlined in a branch circular sent out on 7 January 2021. If you need a copy please email

    • Engage with employers as soon as possible to ensure health and safety on campus. Make sure that the branch is consulted on all aspects of work during the pandemic.
    • Urgently review and update all risk assessments taking into account the higher infection rates of the new COVID variant.
    • Ensure that reviewed risk assessments are resourced, implemented and communicated to all concerned.
    • Urgently review the list of staff being asked to work on campus to minimise the numbers as far as possible. Only those who are essential should be on campus. This will, in turn, create a reduced risk for those staff who must be on campus by keeping numbers low.
    • Consider the safest transport options for those staff who must be on campus. This might include reviewing start/finish times to reduce staff travel during peak times, providing taxi fares, waiving parking fees, improving cycling facilities, etc.
    • Ensure that all staff and students who must be on campus are encouraged to take COVID-19 tests. Lateral flow device tests cannot provide proof that an individual does not have COVID-19, but the tests can screen out some people who may be positive. Testing should not be used as a replacement for any of the safety measures as set out above.
    • Providing appropriate support and flexibility for all employees who have children who are not in school or nursery including those with children learning remotely.
  • Furlough

    If you are unable to carry out your job at home on either a full-time or part-time basis, your employer may be able to ask you to go onto ‘furlough’. Universities and contractors on campus should make use of the furlough scheme as needed to ensure that jobs and salaries of those who cannot work at work during lockdown are protected. You should talk to your UNISON branch if you are going onto furlough and your employer has said that they won’t pay your wages in full. UNISON is advising branches to negotiate with branches to try and ensure that all employees on furlough receive 100% pay.

    You can find updated information about furlough and pay during the lockdown on the UNISON website.

    What is the government’s advice on how the Job Retention Scheme applies to education employers?

    You can read the government’s advice on how the scheme applies to educational settings – from early years through to higher education – on the government’s website.

    It is important to understand that the guidance is subject to what the Treasury Direction says and how employment law applies to existing rights in practice.

    I work for a university. Can I be furloughed?

    In short, the answer is ‘yes’.

    You may be asked to be furloughed if there is no work for you to do from home and if your job would otherwise have been made redundant – for example, if your job is dependent on sources of income that have ceased due to the coronavirus shutdown.  The decision is for the employer to take, but the legal basis for scheme states that it can be for any health, social or economic reason connected to coronavirus.

    The government guidance says that only jobs which are not government funded are eligible to apply to the Job Retention Scheme, but the Treasury Directive is silent on the point. In universities, funding comes from a multitude of different sources. Current government advice recognises this and allows universities to apply for the Job Retention Scheme if universities are clear that the they meet the criteria set out and that claiming public funds would not duplicate public funding that the institution has already received.

    If your employer wishes to claim the CJRS they will need to check that the five criteria set down in the government guidance is met. You can see the guidance in full on the government website.

    Employers who apply under the CJRS can only use that money received for that purpose (ie putting staff on furlough) and must immediately repay it to HMRC if ‘unwilling or unable’ to do so.

    UNISON is calling for all staff who are furloughed to continue to receive 100% of pay and to receive full pension contributions.

    If you are asked by your employer to agree to be furloughed please get in touch with your UNISON branch.

    My employer has asked me to agree to be furloughed. What should I do?

    It is important to understand that an employer cannot put an employee on furlough unless the individual consents.  Due to what the Treasury Direction states (ie the legislative basis for the scheme), the consent must be agreed in writing between the employer and the employee.

    If your employer approaches you about furloughing, please immediately contact your branch – it’s better not to sign anything until you have received advice. UNISON wants to try and secure 100% pay wherever possible for all staff who are furloughed.

    I work for a private catering company in a university. Can they furlough me?

    In short, the answer is ‘yes’.

    The Department for Education has confirmed that contractors that are funded out of public funds should continue to be paid and that in return contractors should continue to pay their staff normally.  However, because of the legal basis for the scheme, there are circumstances in which contractors may, potentially, be able to make a claim under the Government’s Job Retention Scheme (JRS).

    If some staff are needed at work to run a reduced service then you may be furloughed for a minimum of three weeks and then return to work whilst other staff are furloughed. You must not work while on furlough.

    UNISON is calling for all staff who are furloughed to continue to receive 100% of pay and to receive full pension contributions.

    If you are asked by your employer to agree to be furloughed please get in touch with your UNISON branch.

    Can my employer ask me to use up my annual leave while on furlough?

    This will depend on your contract of employment and your employer’s annual leave policy. If you have been asked to take your annual leave check your employer’s policy and talk to your UNISON branch.

  • Health and safety

    Universities need to properly risk assess the work that those staff who remain on campus are undertaking and provide the correct equipment as needed.

    We know that some technicians and cleaning staff may be needed to work in medical and nursing schools, and potentially in areas of possible contamination including laboratories and students’ accommodation.

    The joint statement agreed by the employers and unions makes clear that risk assessments should be reviewed to ensure that government guidelines are met and that new risks are taken account of.

    Safety in universities

    Your employer has a legal duty to make your workplace as safe as possible. Nationally, infection rates are far higher than at the end of last term. These developments mean that risk assessments already in place cannot automatically be relied on and we are calling on all employers to review and update their risk assessments and safety measures before asking employees to return to the workplace.

    You can find out more about safety in the workplace on UNISON’s health and safety webpages and you can find out more specific information on COVID risk assessments too.

    If your workplace doesn’t yet have a UNISON health and safety rep you can find out about getting involved. You and your colleagues will have the latest health and safety information if you have a rep.

    Where can I find out about risk assessments?

    UNISON has a webpage with lots of information on what risk assessments are and how they should be carried out. This includes advice for UNISON health and safety reps and specific information on COVID-19 risk assessments. This page is updated regularly with relevant advice and information.

    Here is an example of an individual staff risk assessment to show how an employer has responded to the requirement to risk assess Black and other vulnerable workers. This could be adapted to the needs of your employer to ensure that the risks faced by Black workers and those with other risk factors are taken into account. It’s provided as an example and isn’t endorsed by UNISON.

    Here is an example of a university risk assessment that could be adapted to the needs of your employer to ensure that COVID-19 risks to the institution, staff and students are fully considered. It’s provided as an example and isn’t endorsed by UNISON.

    Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

    If your job requires you to wear PPE, your employer has a legal responsibility to provide the appropriate protective equipment and training. This is to ensure your safety and reduce any personal risks to you or others  PPE can include aprons, masks gloves etc. The PPE that is needed will be identified by carrying out a full risk assessment, which looks at all the potential risks involved. Here is UNISON’s information on PPE.

    Serious and imminent danger

    Your employer has a responsibility to ensure that your place of work is safe.

    If you and your colleagues have concerns that your work puts you in serious and imminent danger then you need to urgently contact your UNISON branch.

    Make sure that you follow our five step health and safety plan. Although the page is aimed at school and nursery staff, university staff can follow the exact same steps (except for the joint union checklist which is specifically for schools).

    You can find also find out more about what to do in the case of serious and imminent danger.

    What if my employer does not reduce risks?

    If your role can be done from home but your employer is insisting on you returning to work on campus without having put in place adequate measures to enable safe working, please talk to your UNISON branch as soon as possible.

    Your branch can advise you and raise concerns with the employer and see if other options are available to secure safe working environments. If the situation is not resolved, then a letter can be written to the employer warning them of the serious nature of the problem and calling on them to resolve this immediately. This would be in circumstances where there are inadequate health and safety provisions, for example, if you will be in contact with staff and/or students without appropriate safety measures being put in place.

    If the situation is not remedied then you will need to take further advice from your UNISON before asserting your legal right to be protected against any detrimental action by your employer if you are not able to work due to facing serious and imminent danger at work.

    Each case of ‘serious and imminent danger’ needs to be considered separately as circumstances will differ from one workplace to another.

    You can get further advice on this situation on the UNISON website.

  • Pay, terms and conditions

    What’s happening with my pay during the crisis?

    UNISON is working hard to make sure that employment rights, jobs and wages are right at the top of the agenda for the government and employers. Your employer should continue to pay you according to your contract and terms and conditions of employment, unless another agreement is reached.

    If your employer suggests they might not pay you, or might not pay you in full, please keep records of any correspondence and contact your local branch.

    What if I work for a private contractor?

    UNISON recognises that many employees working for a private contractor are in a vulnerable situation and need the support of their local branch. We want to make sure that you are treated fairly and that your jobs and incomes are protected.

    If you work for a contractor and are furloughed then UNISON believes that employers should ‘do the right thing’ and make sure that your pay is protected at 100% rather than the 80% provided by the government under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

    If you are furloughed then you should talk to your local university UNISON branch to get advice and ask them to help you to get full pay if your employer is proposing to cut your wages to 80%. Check the links on our rights at work page to find out more.

    What responsibilities does my employer have if I am working from home?

    This joint statement makes clear that where staff are working from home or an alternative location, your employer should give appropriate consideration to risk assessments, make sure you have the equipment you need to do your job, and think about how to safeguard your mental and physical health.

    Your employer should also consider how you can stay connected with your colleagues and provide regular opportunities for virtual contact.

    Where staff are parents or carers, your employer should give consideration to flexible working hours now that schools are closed to the majority of children.

    Can my employer ask me to use up my annual leave while working from home?

    This will depend on your contract of employment and your employer’s annual leave policy. If you have been asked to take your annual leave check your employer’s policy and talk to your UNISON branch.

    I’m worried I may be made redundant. What should I do?

    If you have reason to believe your job is under threat please seek advice from your local branch. You can contact UNISON via our online form. We are calling on employers to consult fully with the trade unions and to do everything that they can to protect jobs and wages in this fast-changing situation.

    This is a real concern for many universities at the moment. We know that the pandemic will have an economic impact on universities and many staff are worried about their job security. UNISON has raised these concerns with the minister for higher education (see letters at the top of this page) and similar concerns have been raised with the ministers in the devolved nations. UNISON is calling for national talks with university employers to include job security and HE funding.

    If you have been furloughed then you should note that the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) has been extended until the end of October. You can find the details of this on the government’s website. This may mean that your employer is able to keep you on furlough for longer.

    UNISON also has a Q&A on furlough.

    Employers are legally obliged to consult with trade unions at the earliest opportunity if they are considering making redundancies. Employers also have to consult with staff and should try to find suitable alternative employment. You can find out about your rights if you do face redundancy.

    If you think your job is at risk please contact your UNISON branch as soon as possible.

  • Working during lockdown

    Where should I be working during the lockdown?

    If you can do your job from home then you should do so, and your employer should agree to this. Only those posts deemed to be essential should be on campus. If you are required to work on campus make sure that you have seen an updated risk assessment for your job so that you know it is as safe as possible and so you are fully aware of what you need to do to ensure your and others’ safety.

    Under the new lockdown, universities need to maximise the number of staff working from home. When you are working from home, your employer should support you in terms of the resources that you need to do your job as well as ensuring well-being and your health and safety.

    UNISON recognises that there are some essential support services in universities. This may, for example, include: catering and cleaning for those students who live on campus and need to stay in their student accommodation; technical support for vital research; estates; IT support to facilitate remote learning; remote access to learning/library resources; pastoral and mental health support. It is also recognised that some of these services can be provided remotely and others can only be delivered by working on campus.

    Face to face teaching and research

    We accept that universities will be potentially providing face-to-face provision for the limited list of essential courses (set out above) and that essential research needs to continue.

    However, this should happen only after risk assessments have been reviewed and appropriate measures taken to ensure safety, including for necessary social distancing, limits on student group sizes and the other safety measures outlined above. UNISON believes that not all students studying courses on the list above will need to have face to face learning for all course modules. Many of the modules for students on those courses can also be delivered remotely. If your job involves supporting vital teaching and/or research make sure you have the updated risk assessment for your role.

    As stated above, where courses can be taught online, this should remain the default mode of provision whilst we are in lockdown and until the threat of coronavirus infection has reduced.

    Essential/critical workers

    The government has designated university staff, as well as college, school and early years staff, as ‘critical workers’. This means that the children of essential workers should be able to attend school if their parents are required to attend work. However, UNISON’s view is that this does not mean that universities should bring more staff onto campus than absolutely necessary. It also does not mean that the children of those staff who are able to work from home should be sending their children to school. Full details of the Department of Education’s position can be found in this letter sent to universities. This letter emphasises that “…that everyone who can work from home should do so”.

    The letter above outlines four categories of staff who might be needed on campus. UNISON’s view is that just because some jobs are mentioned in the letter, does not mean that they will automatically have to be on campus. Circumstances vary from campus to campus and each university should consult its trade unions and seek to ensure that there is only minimum staffing during the lockdown for the safety of staff, students and the local community.

    Universities need to remembers that schools are seeking to minimise the numbers of pupils coming into school in order to reduce the risk to both school staff and the local community. The prime minister referred to schools as “vectors of transmission” and on this basis schools should only be used by those workers who cannot work from home and whose work on campus is essential.

    UNISON’s view is that every role on campus should have an updated risk assessment taking into account the increased risk from the new variant. All staff on campus should be informed of all of the safety measures and the risk assessments should be fully implemented.

    What if I am in the ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ category?

    As of 20 December 2020, the government reinstated the advice that those who are in the category ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ and who are in a tier 4 area, should not go to work. Employers should make sure that if you are in this category that you are able to work from home again. The definition of those who are in this category can be found on the government’s website or you will have been notified to shield by your GP or the NHS.

    You can find a template letter that you can adapt and send to your employer if you need confirm to them that you are in this category.

    I work in a library – what should I expect?

    The Department for Education have stated that university libraries should remain open. One of the main reasons for this is that there are students, at many universities, studying on critical worker courses such as medicine, nursing, social work and teaching. Additionally, there are some students who are unable to return home – including international students and those who don’t have another home – as well as those engaging in ongoing research, who may need to access libraries.

    UNISON has raised concerns with the DfE about libraries remaining open.

    UNISON expects that most library staff will be working from home. However, if you are asked to come in, you should make that you receive a fully revised and updated risk assessment for your job and for the whole library, so that you are confident that all possible steps have been taken to make your workplace as safer. Libraries need to be safe for both staff and users. This may include significant safety measures to restrict access and limit the numbers of people in the library at any given time, reducing contact and increasing social distancing, stepping up cleaning protocols and to reduce all potential methods of transmission. It might be agreed that sufficient access to resources can be provided in other ways (e.g. online access).

    You may find the Library Service Recovery Toolkit to be a useful resource.

    I work for a private contractor – what should I expect?

    If you are employed by a private contractor, you also have the same rights to a safe working environment. Talk to your UNISON branch if you are concerned that you haven’t been provided with the risk assessments for your job. Your risk assessment should specify what measures you need to do your job safely and this may include wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) which should be provided by your employer.

    If your employer doesn’t provide full occupational sick pay for anyone who gets ill, then talk to your branch about negotiating with the employer for this to be addressed. UNISON believes that everyone should have access to full sick pay.

    Is my job at risk?

    UNISON is calling for the government to provide the funding needed to support universities, and those who work in them, to ensure the long-term viability of higher education institutions and to protect jobs.

    We think that universities should provide assurances that jobs and incomes will be protected during the pandemic. UNISON is continuing to campaign for improved funding to support the higher education sector through the pandemic. Your employer may be able to use the furlough scheme to protect jobs that can’t be done from home during the lockdown.