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An Experiment in Herd Immunity? Missing Data on COVID Deaths in Education

Was the UK trying to use schools to “booster” infections in the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic? Did teachers suffer? There is little data to prove either way

Despite the ongoing Covid-19 Coronavirus lockdown in England, the Government announced in March 2021 it was safe to reopen schools. Photo: Maureen McLean/Alamy

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Included in the 150 questions Baroness Hallett submitted to Boris Johnson regarding the Government’s handling of the pandemic is the question: Did you inform the then Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte during a phone call on or around 13 March 2020 that you “wanted herd immunity”, or words to that effect?”

An internal email from the Dutch government on 14 March 2020 seems to corroborate the claims by Italian ministers that the UK had discussed pursuing a herd immunity strategy with other countries. “The best strategy is indeed as high as possible as (hospital) capacity allows, not as low as possible. Advantage of this UK strategy is herd immunity.”

The British Medical Journal’s COVID inquiry series paper on schools concluded that the UK was an “international outlier” due to a failure to implement measures to reduce infections that were seen in many comparable countries. 

Experts critical of the government’s response have previously accused it of using schools to facilitate a herd immunity strategy after minutes from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JVCI) revealed a discussion on the benefits of children providing “booster” infections to adults.

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The Devil is in the Data

Our ongoing investigation has raised a number of questions regarding the government’s failure to effectively monitor the impact of its schools’ policy as it emerged no accurate data is available on the number of education workers who have died from COVID. During 2020 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released ad hoc studies on deaths by occupation which did provide figures for teachers and certain support staff roles, however, this was discontinued at the start of 2021.

Considering the need to understand the risk to workers in specific workplaces, why did ONS data collection and reporting of deaths by occupation end before the impact of policy decisions could be measured? Why were various support staff roles such as cleaners categorised by occupation but not by workplace?

Why didn’t the Department for Education (DfE) do more to track the deaths of education workers? Why were only 19 covid deaths reported to HSE via RIDDOR? Why is data missing from the DfE’s annual workforce data publication for 2020-2021 on the number of teachers who have died of all causes and will it be resolved with the 2021-2022 release?

The DfE workforce survey is an annual report providing detailed statistics on the schools workforce, identifying trends to inform workforce planning. The section of the survey that covers teachers leaving the profession is disaggregated into retirees, those moving to a non-teaching job and those who die in service, cause of death is not given but this would allow an estimate of excess deaths for teachers but not support staff. 

In the nine years leading up to the pandemic deaths, ranged from 178 in 2013-2014 to 142 in 2016-2017, and 157 in 2018-2019 the year before the pandemic. The official figure for 2019-2020 is 130, but this data only covers primary and secondary schools, and other education sectors aren’t included. The first ONS Occupational Deaths survey published in May 2020 had 46 confirmed COVID deaths of education workers with a total of 238 from all causes. 

The workforce survey has 130 deaths in total for 2019-2020, the lowest number in a decade. If this figure is correct then pandemic measures resulted in a considerable reduction in deaths from causes other than COVID. 

The deceased data for 2020-2021 is currently missing with only 18 deaths listed. A footnote was added in April acknowledging the issue with deceased data after an enquiry was made on behalf of the Byline Times. The DfE said they hope to have rectified this issue by the release of the 2021-2022 data in June.

Deaths from COVID infections that might have occurred in education settings should have been reported to the Health and Safety Executive through the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR). An FOI revealed only 19 COVID deaths in total have been reported via RIDDOR from early years, primary, secondary and further education between September 2019 and August 2022.

In their responses the HSE suggested the study Occupation and COVID-19 mortality in England: a National linked data study of 14.3 million adults) which sought to understand the contribution of occupation to the overall burden of deaths from COVID-19 analysing potential confounding factors.

Using a cohort study of over 14 million people the paper analysed COVID deaths between 24 January 2020 and 28 December 2020. However, the study relied on 2009 census data to determine profession, restricting analysis to people aged 40–64 years, who were thought to have a relatively high occupational stability. With around 50% of teachers having less than ten years experience and over 8% of teachers leaving the profession for reasons other than retirement, the occupational data may not be reliable. The research also puts education professionals from all sectors into one category, including higher education workers who remained remote learning during the time frame studied. 

The data used in this study comes from the ONS Coronavirus (COVID-19) related deaths by occupation data releases, but while teachers and some school support staff like teaching assistants were categorised, a number of school support staff roles like cleaners, technicians, and office staff are included in the category for that occupation alongside those working in the same role across other non-education settings. The number of these workers who died whilst working in schools is unknown.

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Contradictory Data

The last data set on COVID deaths by occupation was released in January 2021. When asked about future releases the ONS response said there would be no more data. The collection reporting on COVID deaths by occupation was discontinued in early 2021. This raises the question: why did the Government decide to stop collecting important data which would have measured the impact of their decisions as they removed measures after the January lockdown?     

The ONS directed the search for accurate death statistics to the Department for Education’s workforce survey. Meanwhile, the National Education Union (NEU) conducted its own investigation into the deaths of education workers by contacting the Teachers Pension Scheme.

Andrew Baisley, a Data Analyst with the NEU, told Byline Times: “The publication for 2022-2023 is due at the end of July. The accounts count the number of payments for death in service made in a particular financial year: consequently, some of the payments made in 2021-22 were for teachers who died between April 2020 and March 2021. 95% of teachers have a pension with TPS.”

Baisley concluded that there “is a mismatch with the ONS figures which are much higher with 794 deaths for primary, secondary and special school teachers between 9 March 2020 and 28 December 2020″. He pointed out that the ONS “rely on self-identification of occupation and so they include people aged 20 to 64 who are not currently in work and as we know there is a very large number of out-of-service teachers.”

Meanhile, Kevin Courney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, points out that “The TPS figures will miss deaths of teachers over 60 years old who had returned to work post pension – and who would be much more vulnerable”

In summary, it may be that in the Teachers’ Pension data a proportion of COVID deaths were balanced out by fewer deaths from other causes such as accidents travelling to work. It may also be the case that the efforts of trade union representatives did protect many workers in the first two years of the pandemic. There could also be a considerable number of deaths in teachers who returned to work post pension, including those who returned to school in support staff roles that wouldn’t be captured in the workforce survey.

The DfE have said they hope to have resolved the data issues regarding teachers’ deaths with the 2021-2022 data released scheduled for later this month. However, this still wouldn’t provide a complete picture. Considering education has been one of the most debated elements of the pandemic, Baroness Hallet’s inquiry should seek to understand why it appears the government doesn’t have accurate and readily available data regarding the impact of COVID on this workforce. ONS data has consistently found teaching and education to have one of the highest rates of Long Covid alongside social care and health care. 

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