Suspected Covid-19 outbreaks in English workplaces double in a week

The data shows the spread of the virus in workplaces is trending up while transmission in most other settings is in decline. Workplaces are now the only location where the spread of the virus is clearly on the increase.

Caelainn Barr www.theguardian.com 

Suspected outbreaks of Covid-19 in workplaces in England almost doubled in the past week, prompting concern as more people return to their jobs.

Public Health England (PHE) said 43 acute respiratory outbreaks were reported in workplaces in the week ending 28 June, up from 22 in the previous week.

The data shows the spread of the virus in workplaces is trending up while transmission in most other settings is in decline. Workplaces are now the only location where the spread of the virus is clearly on the increase.

Low-paid, manual workers, face a much greater risk of dying from coronavirus than higher-paid, white-collar workers. Security guards, care workers, construction workers, plant operatives, cleaners, taxi drivers, bus drivers, chefs and retail workers are all at a greater risk of dying, according to analysis of Covid-19 fatalities from the Office for National Statistics.

People began to return to work in England from 13 May, although those who could work from home were encouraged to continue to do so. Since then, construction sites, warehouses and some restaurants and cafes have started to reopen. Employers have been issued with guidelines on how to keep workplaces safe, including advice to stagger shifts and cleaning.

However, the return to work has clearly caused an increase in outbreaks in workplaces. Figures show clusters started to increase two to three weeks after people began to return to work. In the week ending 7 June there were 24 reported outbreaks, up from five in the previous week. At the time of the outbreaks, the data published by PHE did not make clear that these clusters were occurring in workplaces, as the cases were recorded under “other settings”.

An outbreak is determined by PHE when two or more lab-confirmed cases of Covid-19 have been linked to a particular setting. Suspected clusters are also counted and investigated by local PHE teams, although not all of the cases will prove to be related to the virus. Of the 43 incidents reported in workplaces, 36 had two or more cases of Covid-19 linked to that setting.

Outbreaks of the virus in England have slowed in almost every other setting and are down by almost a quarter overall, to 171, from 223 in the previous week. There were 58 outbreaks in care homes last week, down from 112 in the week before.

Prisons are the only other setting where outbreaks of the virus increased, from two to four cases in the past week.

More outbreaks of the virus have been detected since pillar 2 testing became open to everyone during week 21 of the pandemic. This has lead to greater detection of the virus in “settings with healthy younger populations”, according to PHE.