Unions demand ‘immediate’ release of Covid-19 variant school outbreaks data

Covid-19 variant

Unions representing heads, teachers and support staff have demanded the “immediate” release of data on the number of Covid-19 variant cases linked to schools and colleges.

A joint letter from the NAHT, ASCL, NEU, NASUWT, Unison, Unite and the GMB also calls on education secretary Gavin Williamson to come clean over when ministers were first handed data on the so-called Indian variant’s spread in schools.

Any suspicion that data is being deliberately withheld is of deep concern

It comes amid growing concern about the impact of variant B.1.617.2. Surge testing has been brought in in some areas in response to local outbreaks, and some schools have been forced close on-site provision and switch to online learning.

Unions said they had been requesting data on the variant’s spread in schools since early May.

They also claimed the Department for Education and Public Health England had promised them on May 12 that data on variants and schools “would be released in the weekly surveillance report published each Thursday”.

However, no such data has been released.

“More worryingly, the department is now saying that it cannot even commit to a date when this vital information will be published,” the unions said.

“This has been an extremely difficult year for pupils, staff and school/college leaders who rely on the government to be transparent. Any suspicion that data is being deliberately withheld is of deep concern.”

Unions ask if government ‘instructed’ PHE not to release data

The unions said they needed “urgent answers” from the government on when PHE first shared data on the spread of the variant in schools and colleges, on whether the government “instructed” PHE not to release the data, and why there is no commitment to share the data “immediately”.

A Department for Education spokesperson said the number of Covid outbreaks in schools and education settings “remains stable – at around the same level as in March and April”, despite the “increasing prevalence of the variant first identified in India, and national restrictions being eased”.

Surveillance reports show there were 51 new Covid-related outbreaks in schools last week, and 53 the week before, the highest number since the week ending March 28, when there were 86.

“We are looking at ways to publish further data, and PHE will set out more shortly,” the spokesperson added.

A PHE spokesperson said it already published a breakdown of the number of cases of each variant weekly, and it was “looking to extend this data to include information on clusters and outbreaks of variants by setting”.

“Once we are happy the collection process and data is robust and quality assured, and presented in a clear format we will publish for schools alongside other key settings as soon as possible.”

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