Government faces legal challenge over ‘unlawful’ suppression of Covid data in schools

Public Health England is being told to release data on the spread of the Indian variant in school or face legal action

Chantal Da Silva
Monday 31 May 2021 07:32
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Public Health England (PHE) has been accused of acting “unlawfully” by withholding data on the spread of the Indian variant in schools.

In a pre-action letter sent to the government body, advocacy group the Citizens and AWO, a data rights firm, claim that PHE “surrendered its independent judgement” to Boris Johnson.

The allegation comes following reports that PHE had been preparing to publish the data on 13 May, but faced pressure not to from the prime minister’s office.

Asserting that PHE is bound by the law to be independent and operate without political interference, Citizens and AWO warn in their letter that PHE will face formal legal proceedings in the High Court unless it publishes the data immediately.

In a statement shared with The Independent, Clara Maguire, executive director of the Citizens, said: ‘It defies belief that Public Health England is refusing to publish this vital public health data on the spread of the so-called Indian variant in schools despite scientists, teachers, parents and unions all saying that they need it to safeguard theirs and their children’s health.”

‘We believe that there is an immediate risk to life,” Ms Maguire said. “The public needs this data now and we believe that PHE is acting unlawfully in withholding it.”

“It is unbelievable that a matter of vital importance to our public health can be subject to political interference,” she said.

Cassie Roddy of AWO, said PHE is being asked to explain “why it has seemingly surrendered its independent judgement to the prime minister in deciding not to publish this information”.

“There’s a clear urgency in getting answers,” Ms Roddy said.

In a statement shared with The Independent, Jon Richards, head of education and local government for Unison, said the organisation is “in favour” of the legal action.

“If you want the trust of the public then you need to be open and transparent with the information you have,” Mr Richards said.

“Pupils, their parents and staff in schools deserve to know if they are being put at risk by any new Covid variant – so the government holding back this information raises suspicion that they have something to hide.”

Dr Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist Queen Mary University London, who is quoted in the pre-action letter, has also backed calls for the data on the spread of the Indian variant in schools to be released.

“We know from media reports there are many outbreaks of the so-called ‘India variant’ in schools but there’s no systematic data,” Dr Gurdasani said.

“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,” the doctor said.

In a statement sent to The Independent, a PHE spokesperson noted that a “breakdown of the number of cases of each variant is published weekly”.

“We are looking to extend this data to include information on clusters and outbreaks of variants by setting,” they said.

“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,” the spokesperson said.

The Independent has contacted No 10 for comment.

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