Our one-and-a-half million National Health Service staff are saluted as “heroic” warriors battling against the Covid Virus at enormous risk to their own health. But, to everyone’s suprise, two surveys reveal they’re dying at the same rate as the rest of us.

28 April 2020 By Paul Martin

Efforts to reduce the death and destruction caused by this corona virus are being presented in the media using war-like terms, as above. The staff of the country’s National Heath Service are portayed as brave and self-sacrificial warriors who die in disproportionate numbers during this battle. See e.g.

https://www.itv.com/news/london/2020-04-29/nurse-who-returned-to-the-frontline-sacrificed-his-life-for-his-patients-family-tells-itv-news/

Ken Lambatan
The late Ken Lambatan, 33, a nurse from the Philippines

However keen the media — and the government — are to present things in this light, they are unaware of, or ignoring, one key fact: the statistics do NOT confirm that these “heroes” are dying in numbers any greater than those who are not on the country’s “frontline”.

This has not stopped the BBC, and indeed most of the media, from *assuming that NHS staff are exposed to a greater risk of death, and also *claiming that they are dying because of government failures in supplying protective equipment to NHS staff.

That claim was made again in a special report on the flagship BBC television current affairs programme Newsnight on April 28, the same day as the nationwide silent tribute to all anti-Covid fighters. See https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000hr4j/newsnight-28042020

The BBC’s radio programme “More or Less” on 22 April, however, has uncovered (bravely against the media’s party line) what seems at first sight to be an almost unbelievable statistic. Hear its report, starting at 17 minutes 13 seconds into its output: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000hfqq

Seventy-seven of the staff working in Britain’s National Health Service, it calculated, had died from Covid-19 up to the date being surveyed. This was exactly the same proportion of Covid deaths as had occurred in the rest of the British population within the same working age (taken to be the 15 to 65 age-group, which means 42 million people).

Deaths from Covid in hospitals had been 15, 509 when the BBC made its calculations. However only 2,145 people who died had been within working age. That is one in every 19,000 NHS employees.

That meant the same proportion had died as in the equivalent sector of the general population: one in 19,000.

[ADDED] A survey conducted by three senior clinicians and reported on 22 April by the authoritative trade magazine Health Service Journal. It said the deaths of NHS staff were “broadly” in line with the equivalent in the population.

Here is a table used by three doctors and displayed in the HSJ:

Table 1. Age and sex adjusted death rates in England and Wales among NHS healthcare workers (aged 15-65) associated with covid-19 disease compared to rates in the population who are not employed by the NHS.

Age group (yrs) England and Wales (excluding NHS staff)NHS staff  
 DeathsPopulationDeaths per millionDeathsPopulationDeaths per million*NHS staff mortality ratio**NHS staff adjusted mortality ratio
Males and females 
15-4426321,621,99712.112825,91614.51.191.51
45-64248114,457,230171.655704,88878.00.450.58
Males 
15-4416611,127,31814.93197,78715.21.021.29
45-6416257,316,313222.128155,718179.80.811.02
Females 
15-449710,494,6799.29628,12914.31.551.96
45-648567,140,917119.927549,17049.20.410.52

*Mortality ratio for NHS staff is mortality rate of NHS staff/mortality rate of population of England and Wales not employed by NHS.

**Adjusted mortality ratio for NHS staff is mortality ratio/0.79.

It said the indications were that staff involved in “high-risk” areas like anaesthetising very sick patients, had been shown ton be less at risk than the average. It claimed it could have been because of f better hygiene and protection. It also showed that black and minority staff members died at a much higher rate than the population average and that therefore white NHS staff were dying at a lower rate than the country’s average for the same age groups.

“Overall the rate of deaths appears to be largely consistent with the number of healthcare workers in the population and the distributions by occupation and geography are largely as expected,” the three clinicians reported.

They added: “However, individuals of black and minority ethnicity are notably over-represented in the data and conversely those working in the high risk specialties of anaesthesia and intensive care appear to be under-represented, most likely through good practice.”

The BBC team, while expressing surprise, came up with some potential explanations:

1. In proportion to the rest of the working-age population, fewer NHS staff may have had serious pre-existing conditions (as they would not have been employed if they were that ill).

2. Since most of the dead had contracted the covid virus before the lockdown, NHS staff should have had awareness of the degree of danger facing the country and themsleves from the virus earlier than the general population.

3. NHS staff would in any case have been more health-conscious and would have adopted more effective protective procedures; as they would on average have been more used to working in conditions where it is possible to catch infections.

Maybe this ‘NHS staff advantage’ has eroded, they speculated, as the population must have become more aware of hygiene and implemented protective behaviour during lockdown.

The BBC producers who compiled the statistics, taken from government sources, could only speculate at his counter-intuitive and counter-narrative result.

Of these theories, the suggestion that sounded most credible was that the NHS staff had on average a better concept of hygiene, caused by their medical involvement, and that this had acted as a dampener on their chances of catching the disease and dying from it. That would then balance the increased risk inside hospitals or in the staff’s contacts with patients, the theory goes.

Another possible explanation is that the figures would have shown higher proportion if the figures could have reflected the death rates only of those working in the Covid-19 wards and the Intensive Care Units (rather than all NHS staff).

A puzzling aspect that the BBC ‘More it Less’ team did not discuss was that, compared with the general population, the NHS has a much higher proportion of staff from black and minority ethnic groups. And indeed the proportion of such black and minority NHS staff who have died has been far higher than the general population’s average. (For example, the first 10 doctors to die why were all from this this group.)

That would imply that the white NHS staff had been dying at a rate that was actually lower than the national working population’s average. This makes the the statistics even more surprising.

A medical doctor, Debjit Chatterjee, commented on the apparently much higher proportion of the deaths of NHS doctors (he estimated their deaths, 95 per cent of which were BAME, were 75 per cent higher than the average of the general population).

He wrote: “As a practising clinician in NHS, few things are obvious to me. From the profile data of the dead NHS workers on the Guardian website, it appears that very few working in intensive care unit (ICU) setting like respiratory physicians, intensivists/anaesthetists and ICU nurses are affected. Keeping in mind that the data is extremely limited, one can still probably say that the advanced personal protection equipment (PPE) (which includes a respirator mask) in higher risk area is working. The NHS workers who are dying are mainly from non-ICU/HDU areas.

“From the experience of working in my hospital as well as speaking to my physician and nursing colleagues in the other hospitals, it looks like that the protective measures taken by the NHS workers during their day to day work in the non ICU/HDU setting have not been adequate. This was probably particularly true in the first 2 weeks of start of rapid transmission.

At that stage I noted that the general concept among the junior doctors and nurses and health care assistants was they would all get it and it was a mild illness and so let get it over. The government’s concept of herd immunity in the beginning did not help.

“Social distancing was difficult to achieve in narrow hospital corridors, cramped medical wards, nursing stations and small handover rooms and consultant and secretary offices. I have to say that the health care workers were also not proactive in their approach of self-protection and hospital management did not have any specific plan to protect their staff in clinical and non-clinical areas (like re-arranging the ward space or nursing station to allow more social distancing , restricting number of staff in the canteen or coffee room). Use of masks by the health care workers in non-Covid and non-clinical areas in the beginning was also actively discouraged.

“One does not need to be a statistician to understand that if a huge number of heath care workers are infected, a certain percentage of them will die.


“To know the actual impact Covid 19 on health workers, we also need to know how many family members of NHS workers have died so far.”

When it comes to non-NHS staff, ‘More or Less’ showed there was indeed at least one group of key workers who, according to the statistics, have died at a higher than average rate. In London, 26 transport workers succumbed to Covid-1. Twenty of these were from the bus service, out of 31,000 bus workers.

Yes, many NHS staff are brave to be working in dangerous conditions – but it is comforting to know that our health service staff, overall, are in no greater danger than the rest of us.

Apparently.

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