UK lockdown easing plans criticised as study outlines virus risk
Lower skilled workers in parts of Britain appear at greater risk of dying from coronavirus than white collar employees, according to an analysis of official figures published Monday.
The finding by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Sunday that construction and manufacturing workers could return to work but recommended office staff still work from home.
The move is the first change to a seven-week-old nationwide lockdown introduced to curb the spread of the virus, which the government hopes to introduce in phases.
More details are expected when Johnson addresses parliament at 1430 GMT. But opposition parties, unions and business leaders said there was a lack of clarity about the new recommendations -- and voiced concerns about the safety of people returning to work.
The devolved governments in Scotland and Wales have also said they would keep the lockdown in force because of continued fears about high transmission rates. Britain has been one of the worst-hit countries in the global pandemic, with the government officially recording nearly 32,000 deaths of people who had tested positive for COVID-19.
The actual number of deaths from the virus is far higher, with the ONS -- which tallies all deaths and releases weekly updates for periods up to two weeks prior -- finding the 32,000 toll was reached in late April.
The ONS reviewed nearly 2,500 deaths in England and Wales linked to COVID-19 up to April 20 and discovered "men working in the lowest skilled occupations had the highest rate of death".
The assessment indicated taxi drivers and chauffeurs, bus and coach drivers, chefs, and sales and retail assistants had died in greater proportions to those in other occupations.
Men and women working in social care, which includes care workers and home carers, both had "significantly raised rates of death" involving the virus. But healthcare workers such as doctors and nurses were not found to have higher death rates.
The ONS cautioned that the study was too small and narrow to draw any definite conclusions. "This analysis does not prove conclusively that the observed rates of death involving COVID-19 are necessarily caused by differences in occupational exposure," it said. "We adjusted for age, but not for other factors such as ethnic group and place of residence."
The assessment is the latest to highlight significant disparities in the impact of COVID-19 in Britain based on socio-economic criteria, including ethnicity. The ONS reported last week it had found black men and women are more than four times more likely to die with coronavirus than white people in England and Wales.
The leader of the main opposition Labour party, Keir Starmer, said Johnson's plan left many questions unanswered and called for more guidelines for workplaces to operate. "What about sanitation, protective equipment, these were things that were discussed in a consultation document last week-end but not resolved yet," he told LBC radio.
The general secretary of the Trades Union Congress umbrella group, Frances O'Grady, said the announcement gave employers and employees little time to prepare. "How can the prime minister –- with 12 hours' notice -– tell people they should be going back to sites and factories? It's a recipe for chaos," she said.
The leader of the London Chamber of Commerce, Richard Burge, advised businesses in the capital not to change their plans until there was more detail. "You have not been given sufficient information on how to get your employees safely to work nor how to keep them safe while they are there," he said.
"At the moment it would foolish for any business leader to encourage staff not already undertaking essential work to do anything but to continue to work from home (on Monday) if they can do so."