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Cleaners, carers and leisure workers among hardest hit in UK COVID-19 death tolls

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Lucy Harley-McKeown
·4 min read
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A bus drives past a government sign about the pandemic London. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters
A bus drives past a government sign about the pandemic London. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters

Cleaners, carers and front-line leisure workers were among the hardest hit professions by COVID-19 in the UK last year.

According to new office for national statistics (ONS) data released on Monday, 7,961 deaths involving the coronavirus in the working age population (those aged 20 to 64 years) of England and Wales were registered between 9 March and 28 December 2020.

Almost three in four of the deaths involving COVID-19 in social care occupations (347 out of 469 deaths; 74.0%) were in care workers and home carers, with 109.9 deaths per 100,000 males (107 deaths) and 47.1 deaths per 100,000 females (240 deaths).

Watch: UK death toll at 97,939

The ONS noted that the analysis is based on provisional data, and findings could change as more deaths are registered. In particular, there may be deaths in some occupations that have not yet been registered because a coroner's inquest is required.

Nearly two-thirds of the deaths recorded were among men (5,128 deaths), with the age-standardised mortality rate of death involving COVID-19 being statistically significantly higher in men, at 31.4 deaths per 100,000 men aged 20 to 64 years compared with 16.8 deaths per 100,000 women (2,833 deaths).

When looking at broad groups of occupations, men who worked in elementary occupations (699 deaths) or caring, leisure and other service occupations (258 deaths) had the highest rates of death involving COVID-19, with 66.3 and 64.1 deaths per 100,000 males, respectively.

Men working in elementary occupations or caring, leisure and other service occupations had the highest rates of death involving COVID-19. Chart: ONS
Men working in elementary occupations or caring, leisure and other service occupations had the highest rates of death involving COVID-19. Chart: ONS

READ MORE: Forgotten security staff fear for jobs and health at near-empty London offices

In women, process, plant and machine operatives (57 deaths) and caring, leisure and other service occupations (460 deaths) had the highest rates of death involving COVID-19 when looking at broad occupational groups, with 33.7 and 27.3 deaths per 100,000 females, respectively.

Women working in process, plant and machine operatives, and caring, leisure and other service occupations had the highest rate of death involving COVID-19. Chart: ONS
Women working in process, plant and machine operatives, and caring, leisure and other service occupations had the highest rate of death involving COVID-19. Chart: ONS

The rate of death for men working in healthcare professions was more than double that of women. Men suffered 44.9 deaths per 100,000 males; 190 deaths, when compared with the rate of COVID-19 among men of the same age in the population. The rate among women who worked in healthcare occupations (17.3 deaths per 100,000 females; 224 deaths) was statistically similar to the rate in the population.

As the pandemic spread to the UK at the beginning of 2020, workplaces were slow to act to protect workers. A shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and delayed national lockdown meant employers had to act as a mass shift to working from home took place. A move that, however, wasn’t possible for swathes of front-line staff.

When national lockdowns were eased, construction workers were allowed to return to sites, and in the brief period in the summer where restaurants and pubs reopened, hospitality staff became ostensibly front-line workers.

The ONS said that deaths among skilled trades occupations were 40.4 deaths per 100,000 males — or 848 deaths in total.

Deaths among restaurant and catering establishment managers and proprietors were 119.3 deaths per 100,000 males or 26 deaths.

For women, where the highest death toll was among social workers, there were 32.4 deaths per 100,000 females or 25 deaths in the period recorded.

Ben Humberstone, head of health analysis and life events at the ONS, said: “As the pandemic has progressed, we have learnt more about the disease and the communities it impacts most.

“There are a complex combination of factors that influence the risk of death; from your age and your ethnicity, where you live and who you live with, to pre-existing health conditions. Our findings do not prove that the rates of death involving COVID-19 are caused by differences in occupational exposure.”

Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?