UNISON: SOAS handling of COVID-19 case borderline “criminally negligent”

The UNISON branch at SOAS has made a formal complaint to the School’s senior management over its handling of a confirmed COVID-19 case. SOAS is investigating an incident in relation to the complaint.

A cleaning operation after a SOAS student was diagnosed with COVID-19, or coronavirus, has been called “messed up” in a SOASk Me Out post.

The anonymous author of the post, who claimed to be a SOAS member of staff, was responding to a statement released by the School on March 12. The statement said that a student diagnosed with COVID-19 was involved in a teaching activity on campus on March 6. The statement claimed that: “The seminar room used for the teaching activity has been closed off and is being sanitised by a provider.”

But the SOASk Me Out post, which also appeared on Reddit, reported that: “A single cleaner from the regular cleaning staff was sent in to clean the room and told to ‘lock the door behind them’. Apparently, they were not told the reason for the cleaning prior to this task. The cleaner has now been given 14 days leave.”

LondonStudent has not yet verified all of the claims made in the post.

The incident was brought to the public’s attention on Reddit, March 12. LondonStudent cannot verify all of the claims in this Reddit post.

SOAS is now investigating the case. A spokesperson for SOAS told LondonStudent that “this is a very serious allegation.”

When shown a copy of the SOASk Me Out post, the spokesperson said: “This is not our understanding of the situation. We are currently undertaking an investigation into exactly what happened.

“We followed all Public Health England (PHE) advice and guidance on the immediate actions to take in relation to the confirmed case at SOAS.

“PHE have advised that their assessment is that the risk to other students, staff and visitors is very low.”

Trade Union members and student supporters stand outside the SOAS building during the 2020 Spring strike action, Credit: Author.

But the School’s UNISON branch says that “a formal complaint on behalf of the UNISON member [involved in the cleaning operation] has been raised with senior management at SOAS. We are awaiting a full management response which we have been promised by Monday.”

The spokesperson said that the trade union branch is “shocked” by this case.

When researching this case, UNISON has discovered that since the student used the classroom on March 6, two members of staff had cleaned the room. One cleaner entered the room on March 7, unaware that they could be exposed to the virus. A second cleaner entered the room without additional protection one day after SOAS was aware of the COVID-19 hazard, on March 12.

This is concerning because new tests show that COVID-19 can live on some surfaces for up to three days.

The branch spokesperson said: “Until UNISON intervened, neither cleaner was made aware of the hazard that they had been exposed to. Subsequently, UNISON requested that both self-isolate and demanded that SOAS Human Resources make contact with them and reassure them of the support they can receive.

“We are still waiting to talk to the cleaner who entered the room on [March 12] as they are obviously still quite distressed. I therefore cannot yet comment on the exact circumstances of the incident except to state that it was a clear … breach of health and safety.”

The spokesperson continued: “[This] calls into question, in our view, the competence of SOAS senior executives to manage such situations … I would like to take the opportunity of thanking the student who did the right thing by reporting their status to the university. Sadly, it appears in contrast that SOAS management’s response was bordering on the criminally negligent.”

SOAS’s cleaners were brought in-house in 2018 after a long-running campaign.

This is not the first time that trade unions have raised concerns about the treatment of cleaners during the COVID-19 crisis.

At University Hospital Lewisham, GMB Union is taking on the multinational contractor ISS amid a dispute over pay. Staff at the hospital, which was the first in London to handle a case of coronavirus, were underpaid in February.

ISS failed to fully reimburse workers for the February error earlier this week, whilst some staff reported not receiving any money for their work at all.

Amid the dispute, a hospital worker told South London Press: “It has been disgusting the way they treat us.

“We are working with coronavirus in the hospital and not getting paid for it. If we don’t clean the ward it is a state and we have a chance of catching coronavirus here.”

GMB says that no ISS managers had their pay witheld, and that some cleaners are now in “dire financial straights.”

Neither dispute was resolved by the end of the day on Friday.

SOAS is now taking steps to delay the spread of coronavirus on its campus. The School has committed to ending face-to-face teaching by March 23, following LSE’s lead. It also aims to hold its summer exams online, where possible.

Public Health England says that anyone who may have contracted the virus should avoid public places. Instead, you may use the 111 online coronavirus service to plan your next steps.

Will is London Student's Features Editor. He has recently completed a BA History at SOAS, and you might find him hiding in a library around Bloomsbury.

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