Downing Street "tried to block" data on Covid variant's spread in English schools
The lack of transparency has been labelled as "deeply worrying."
Downing Street reportedly put pressure on Public Health England (PHE) not to publish crucial data on how the new variant of Covid was spreading in schools.
The Observer reports that it has seen documents and evidence showing that Number 10 removed a page of data on the spread of Covid-19 in schools from the pre-print of a PHE report. Just days after the report was published on 13 May, the government went ahead with its decision to remove mandatory face coverings in English schools.
Scientists, union officials and teachers have described the news as "deeply worrying."
According to the Observer, Downing Street was directly involved in the decision not to publish the data on schools. The Prime Minister's office has acknowledged that it was in correspondence with PHE about the publication of the report and its contents, but denied that this was "interference" or "pressure.'
The data on the spread of the so-called Indian variant of Covid in schools has still not been published, despite calls from unions and scientists. In areas such as Bolton, cases of the new variant are rising fastest among school-age children.
The information seen by the Observer reportedly suggests that, up to 12 May, 13% of the total cases of the new variant were linked to schools. The number of cases linked to schools since then is unknown, despite cases of the variant rising by 160%.
PHE has said that the data will be published "in due course."
Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London, said: "It feels like bad news that we’re not being told.
"There is a narrative that schools are safe but the data clearly shows this variant can and does spread in schools. Two weeks ago, the Singaporean health minister closed schools because of the risk of greater spread in children of this variant.
"Parents, teachers and children just need this information in order to take steps to keep themselves and their communities safe. The new variant is the biggest threat to the roadmap according to Sage, but the data is just not coming out in a transparent and timely manner. I just feel like PHE is letting us down at a crucial time."
Meanwhile Deepti Gurdasani, from Queen Mary University, London, said it was "incredibly worrying" that the government had decided to lift restrictions in schools.
She said: "We know from media reports there are many outbreaks of the so-called 'India variant' in schools but there’s no systematic data. In Bolton, it’s risen fastest in school-age children and it looks like schools are contributing to the rapid spread of the virus … and yet at this crucial moment, the government has gone ahead and lifted mitigations. It’s incredibly worrying.
"This is a public health emergency and PHE is supposed to be an independent public health body. It is crucial that they have the public’s trust."
The head of education for Unison, said that the union had asked for the data on the spread of the variant in schools for weeks. They had apparently been told that it would be published in the report.
A spokesperson for Downing Street said: "Twice a week Public Health England publish a breakdown of the number of cases of each variant in the UK.
"Given public interest in variants of concern, we are looking at ways to publish cases transmitted in different settings in a robust and clear way. PHE will publish this data in due course."