Dear Jak,

As discussed this morning, time has moved on since our exchange of correspondence on the UCU open letter and, as I said to you at the meeting, I don’t intend to respond to each point you have raised on behalf of the branch. I do think it important though, that your membership understands why and how we are undertaking testing.


I want to take this opportunity to set out the advantages we have gained from our testing regime. The rapid antibody tests have given the University an indication of who within the campuses’ populations has been infected with the virus in the last six months. At the time of deciding that we needed to test campus populations, the only tests available on the market that were reliable, were antibody tests. The test identifies two antibodies: IgM (early antibody 5-7 day); and IgG (historic antibody). Of those who have had positive antibodies detected, some confirmed that they believed they had suffered symptoms of the virus, but had not been able to get a gold-standard PCR diagnostic test which would have confirmed this; others were not aware that they had had any symptoms of the COVID-19 infection. This last group could be considered to be asymptomatic. An IgM early antibody detection could indicate the individual was still infectious. An early IgM result is a prompt for clinicians to ask the individual tested about their recent history. They were asked if they had recently experienced any symptoms of the COVID-19 infection, however mild, or if they knew of anyone they had mixed with recently who had symptoms of COVID-19. Confirmation of active infection was then sought by referring the individual for a PCR test to mitigate risk.

The use of the antibody testing has been helpful in combination with a range of measures we are taking to safeguard health and well-being. To date six students who tested positive to IgM antibodies, also tested positive to a PCR test and, as a result, were told to self-isolate. Their close contacts were also given this advice, two of whom have become COVID-19 positive but were in isolation due to the notification we had given them which resulted in them having no close contacts thereby preventing spread.

The antibody testing has identified some students and staff (who were infectious) who may otherwise have been missed by the external, NHS test and trace process. There are now improved methods available to us. Since recommending the rapid antibody tests to the University community, the science has moved on and a rapid antigen test is now available. Using these tests will help us to identify at an earlier stage the active (live) infection, rather than using the proxy of the IgM antibody. We expect the use of the antigen tests to further mitigate risks to both the University’s staff and students and to the wider community.

The use of rapid antigen tests: these can pick up the active virus between 3-7 days (a time when an individual is highly infectious). A positive antigen test would enable the University to request earlier isolation of a flat with an asymptomatic case, reducing the risk of spreading the virus unknowingly. It is emphasised that although these antigen tests have a high level of accuracy, diagnostic confirmation of a PCR test is still recommended to confirm a positive case. We therefore request isolation for up to 24 hours reducing the inconvenience of proactive self-isolation if the PCR turns out to be negative.

Positive antigen results and symptomatic cases are requested to book a test via the NHS test centre which is now located on the Colchester campus. Southend and Loughton both have local test centres.

The data

The University dashboard shows the numbers of new cases reported by affected individuals to the University for the day on which the report was made. If any delay occurs in reporting cases, the date on which they are recorded may differ to that on which the individual’s symptoms began or when they received a positive test result. I hope that you have seen the very prominent campaign that we are running to remind people of the importance of reporting immediately.

The nature of the infection means that there are, at any time, likely to be positive cases which have yet to be identified through testing. However, our testing regime has provided us with useful data on historic infection and, as already explained, data on early antibodies from individuals that were asymptomatic but infectious. I am confident that our public health trained clinical specialists, working closely with Public Health England virologists, immunologists and epidemiologists are best qualified to advise us. UCU expressly supports the use of evidence in the management of COVID safety and on this issue the University shares the same view.

Our primary responsibility is our duty of care to all of our staff and students. You have seen and we have discussed, the decision that the University has taken today, that the University will move most teaching to on-line only, with effect from 4th November, until the end of the Autumn Term on 18th December. Only teaching for which a face-to-face component is deemed essential will be delivered in person.

I look forward to working with our campus trade unions and trade union health and safety representatives, in delivering our shared commitment to ensuring the health and well-being of students as well as staff.

Best wishes

Susie Morgan
Director of People & Culture