Last reviewed 21 May 2020

How does coronavirus affect different occupational groups? Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, which highlights impacts on UK society, the economy and specific worker groups, is a searchable guidance resource — with added analysis drawing on US figures and experiences. Jon Herbert investigates.

Official statistics

The UK’s weekly infection and fatality reports are dramatic but subject to significant revision. However, background data which is also reviewed regularly can offer a more consistent insight into underlying trends, with the caveat that we are still in an early stage of understanding COVID-19’s full implications.

ONS is a national authority on the interpretation of meaningful information. It has analysed the implications of recent COVID-19 statistics in terms of which occupations have the highest potential exposure to the coronavirus and also looked at insights from comparable US data.

These trends have become more important now that the Government has announced that it is easing lockdown, and that workers who cannot work from home should be looking at going to work.

To this end, the Government issued sector-specific guidance on working safely during coronavirus across 8 different sectors to help employers in terms of reducing the risks of infection in workplaces. However, a study published this month in The Lancet pointed out that 20% of the population (some 8 million people) have at least one of the high-risk underlying conditions listed by Public Health England such as diabetes or coronary disease and so are more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Most have not been included in the shielding advice from the Department of Health as they are not classed as “clinically extremely vulnerable”. If they go to work as advised the death toll will likely be higher than expected.

Who is most exposed to COVID-19?

Not surprisingly, exposure to the coronavirus is highest where people generally have frequent and close physical interactions with others.

ONS has also looked at the characteristics of workers in occupations more likely to be in close contact with other people and exposed to the disease.

Some 75% are women; around 80% are 55 or older — the same as in the general working population. Approximately 50% of those employed as care workers are 55 or over and 20% are from black and minority ethnic groups, compared to just over 10% in the wider population.

Health and social care professionals

ONS data taken over several weeks shows, however, that despite daily exposure to disease, health care workers such as doctors and nurses have not had higher fatality rates than comparable people in the general population.

Reasons cited could include greater use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and a deeper knowledge of how diseases spread, and therefore the more hygiene measures employed, such as handwashing. Also, deaths in some occupations need a coroner’s inquest to be registered.

While social carers have a lower disease exposure than healthcare workers, data shows that both men and women working in social care had significantly higher COVID-19 death rates. This could be something to do with the provision of PPE; further research work is expected.

Education sector workers are less exposed to the disease than healthcare employees, but primary and nursery education teaching staff, as well as special needs education professionals working closely with pupils, are likely to be more exposed than secondary or higher education teaching staff.

Where have the highest fatalities been?

Comparing people of similar age and sex, men in the lower-skilled occupations have to date had the highest COVID-19 death rates, security guards being one of the highest. Others at high risk include taxi drivers, chauffeurs, bus and coach drivers, chefs, plus sales and retail assistants. ONS notes that ethnicity and where people live may also be factors.

Limitations of the data

Although relevant nonetheless, the interim findings are based on provisional figures subject to change. The timeframe so far includes fatalities registered both before and after the lockdown; future analysis could show how rates differed among occupations in the pre- and post-lockdown periods.

Many people will have been infected before social distancing measures were introduced and the ONS cannot show whether individuals contracted the virus at work. Similarly, no account was taken of the occupations of others in households, nor does the analysis yet reflect changes in working practices.

Conclusion

As UK employees are encouraged to return to work if remote homeworking is not a sustainable option, data analysis can help to identify where occupational groups and individual employees might be most at risk.

The broad conclusions suggest that people who do not work close to people regularly — the ONS lists, as examples, artists, marketing professionals and agricultural machinery drivers — are at lesser risk. That said, infection rates in the hospitality roles, such as bar staff, chefs and hairdressers, who work within arm's length of people and therefore are more likely to come into contact with someone with COVID-19, are — unsurprisingly — low as these businesses are currently closed to the public.

The good news is that, as the healthcare worker data shows, exposure does not translate into infection and fatalities if the proper risk control measures are taken.