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Nottingham asks staff to drop work and volunteer with students

While University of Birmingham chancellor asks for NHS equipment to test students

Staff at the University of Nottingham have been asked to put their work on the back burner and volunteer in student halls or a contact centre during the “challenging” start of term.

Scores of universities have reported outbreaks of Covid-19 on their campuses, and thousands of students have been forced to self-isolate in halls across the UK since the start of the autumn term.

In an email to staff seen by Research Professional News, the University of Nottingham said the Covid-19 pandemic had made the beginning of term “very challenging across the board” and it was receiving a “large number of enquiries” from students and “incredibly anxious” parents.

In the email, the university said it was “urgently looking for staff” to volunteer.

“We recognise that you will be busy right now and that your daily work will need to be deprioritised to enable you to volunteer,” the university wrote.

Staff are being asked to volunteer in student halls, “offering basic information and reassurance to students” in shifts at evenings or weekends. Nottingham said staff would be provided with personal protective equipment and would not be told to go into areas where students are self-isolating.

It also wants volunteers to work in a virtual contact centre for four-hour shifts several times a week, taking calls from students and parents. The university said it needed “a significant number” of advisers to “respond to queries and concerns, listening, remaining calm and being empathetic towards students and parents who get in touch”.

The university said staff must ask their line manager for approval before they volunteer.

Commenting on the plea on social media, University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said staff had “warned of the dangers of needlessly bringing students back” and the university wanted “the same staff to volunteer to clear up the predictable disaster”.

A spokesperson from the University of Nottingham said: “So that we can provide the necessary advice, guidance and reassurance to students (and their parents) who are adapting to starting their studies, living in a new city and settling into halls of residence, in the face of a rapidly-changing environment brought about by the pandemic we have asked staff from all levels and departments across the university to volunteer to help with a contact centre and within halls of residence.

“The health, safety and wellbeing of our university community is a key priority during this critical time. We recognise that all of our staff are busy and doing an incredible job and we are grateful for all those who can spare the time to help as part of their role.”

Elsewhere, in a House of Lords debate on 7 October, crossbench peer and University of Birmingham chancellor Karan Bilimoria said the distribution of “a piece of machinery” used by the NHS to test for Covid-19 “would enable the testing at the university facility to go up multifold”.

He added: “Why is that being held back? Why are these pieces of equipment not being released to increase capacity? This is an urgent situation”.

But James Bethell, parliamentary under-secretary for innovation, said testing was “not simply a matter of having a piece of kit that allows you to run a testing programme”.

“A massive logistical and data programme is required, and its challenges are enormous, so I question the proposition that we should simply send the piece of kit back to Birmingham University and let people there get on with it,” he said.

The Department for Health and Social Care pointed out that it had announced several pilots for testing for Covid-19, including a new rapid test for coronavirus and a Covid-19 saliva test.