Universities Must Prepare for a Surge in Swine Flu; as Universities Draw Up Plans to Cope with a Surge in Swine Flu Cases This Autumn, David Hagendyk of the University and College Union Cymru Argues That Honesty Will Be Crucial to Handling the Crisis

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PREPARE well, use common sense and be open and honest with your staff about the risks they face. In a nutshell that is the advice from the University and College Union to universities, further education colleges and training providers on how to deal with the expected surge in swine flu cases over the coming months.

Every expert prediction is that the situation is going to get worse. The start of the new academic term will see the media focus turn to our schools, colleges and universities. Principals and vice-chancellors are being told to plan for the closure of institutions and to assume a sickness absence rate of 15%, although the TUC states that some employers are preparing for a rate as high as 50%.

So UCU members will rightly be concerned that all is being done at their institution to ensure their safety and that of their colleagues and students.

Behind the professional label of lecturer or professor are real people with families or health concerns. Many will have young children, be pregnant or have grandchildren whom they are desperate not to expose to unnecessary risk. Others may have chronic health conditions and be particularly vulnerable to the most severe effects of swine flu. Our members are committed educators and professionals, but they are also real people who can rightly be forgiven for being a little anxious about the start of the new academic year.

All the advice from government and health professionals is that colleges and universities should have plans in place to deal with a major outbreak of swine flu and that they should be in place before the new term starts in September.

Plans should include criteria for when to take the decision to close an institution. The first Welsh college or university to have to take this decision will be the focus of media attention. Pictures of abandoned lecture theatres and interviews with anxious parents will make compelling television. However, the media has a responsibility to ensure that this understandable concern doesn't become hysteria or mass panic. Along with trade unions and employers, colleagues in the media must recognise that they have a wider responsibility too.

College principals and university vice-chancellors won't be short of advice and guidance when deciding how best to plan and to respond. I hope then that any reading this article won't object to a few suggestions from UCU: Involve trade unions in planning and decision making from the start. UCUhas excellent health and safety reps that will be able to offer practical suggestions and reasoned objections. Work with campus trade unions to strengthen procedures for dealing with the pandemic and to instil a greater confidence among staff; Treat staff like grown-ups. Being open and honest about the risks involved and the procedures for all possible scenarios will help breed a culture of confidence. …