Hospital workers putting on PPE

In this observation, we set out some of the most important facts about key workers to help inform the evolving policy response to COVID-19.

The resilience of the economy and society to the COVID-19 pandemic will depend on our ability to ensure key workers can keep working. Frontline NHS workers will obviously be key to responding to the pandemic, but workers in other critical areas such as education, social care, the emergency services, food supply, local and national government, the police and army will also have a key role to play.

This is already a major priority for government. The government has today published a list of key worker occupations who will still be eligible for childcare in schools after they shut for most pupils later today. The length of this list suggests that we are quickly going to learn just how interdependent we are on one another to lead our daily lives.

Importantly, 42% of key workers have at least one child aged 16 or below. Key workers with children aged 16 and younger at home are more likely to have no partner (16% for key workers as compared with 11% of other workers). 28% of key workers with dependent children have a partner who is also a key worker. About 46% of key workers with children have a partner who is in (non-key) work.

Taken together, this means that 44% of key workers with children – and 49% of key workers in the health sector – are either partnered with another key worker, or have no partner at home. Virtually all key workers – including 93% of health workers and 96% of education workers – are either without a partner or have a partner in work, who might not easily be able to look after their children. We are clearly going to be very dependent on key workers who will themselves be dependent on childcare being available.

In that context there is more government policy that needs to be clarified. In particular:

  • Eligibility for school childcare – As far we are aware, children are currently eligible for school-based childcare if one of their parents works in a critical occupation. Irrespective of this, the government advise “every child who can be safely cared for at home should be.” If the burden on schools is too high, the government might wish to offer specific advice that all parents should be in critical occupations.
  • Out-of-hours childcare – Currently, the school childcare offer only exists for the normal school day. Finding a solution for out-of-hours childcare before and after childcare would allow more key workers to work full-time, particularly if they were previously relying on grandparents to pick up or drop off their children.
  • Care for pre-school children – Key workers will still have access to formal childcare for pre-school children. However, many key workers might need to access additional formal childcare if they were previously relying on grandparent or other informal childcare.
  • Older adults residing with key worker – What can be done to reduce risks for the 280,000 individuals aged 70 and above that co-reside with key workers?

In this observation, we set out some of the most important facts about key workers to help inform the evolving policy response.

How many key workers are there?

Labour Force Survey data from 2018­-19 allows us to look at individuals in key worker occupations related to health care and social work; education; public services; food; public order; and transport. This does not include all critical occupations as defined by the government list today, but covers some of the most important areas of work that will almost surely need to keep functioning during the crisis.

We estimate 22% of all working-age individuals are in the set of key worker occupations that we look at, equating to 7.1 million adults across the UK. Around 26% of all women are in these critical occupations, compared with 18% of men.

Where are the key workers?

Key workers are not evenly spread across the UK. In Wales they account for 26% of the working-age population as compared with the national average of 22% (and 18% in London). Policymakers in these areas face a larger challenge to keep such individuals in work.

Different types of key workers predominate in different areas – for example, 10% of the working-age population in Scotland, Wales and the North West is employed as a health key worker, compared to just 6% in London. On the other hand, Londoners are more than twice as likely to be employed in public service jobs (such as justice, religion and journalism) which are designated as “key”, as are the residents of any other region.

Figure 1. Share of key workers in working-age population, by region

How do key workers differ across occupations?

Key workers are predominantly women: 60% of key workers are women, compared to just 43% of workers outside of these key industries. However, as Figure 2 shows, the gender split differs enormously by sector. While four in five key workers in the education, health and social care industries are women, just one in five public order workers is female. Men are also overwhelmingly represented in the transport sector, where over 90% of key workers are male.

Figure 2. Percentage of key workers who are women, by occupation group

How do the needs and families of key workers differ from other workers?

The needs of key workers, and how they will be affected by other COVID-19 related policies, will in large part depend on number and profile of other adults and children in their household.

As shown below, key workers are more likely than other workers to have school-age children. 42% of key workers have at least one child aged 16 or younger, compared with 39% of other workers. They are also more likely to have younger children, which makes the availability of childcare critical for such workers.  

Figure 3. Percentage of workers with children at different ages

In terms of the extent to which they can depend on a partner for childcare, key workers with children aged 16 and younger at home are slightly more likely to have no partner (16% for key workers as compared with 11% of other workers). 28% of key workers with dependent children have a partner who is also a key worker and another 46% have a partner who is in (non-key) work.

Figure 4. Partner status of workers with children aged 16 or under

In terms of living with older adults, about 4% of key workers (around 280,000 people) live in the same household as someone aged 70 or over, a key group at risk of serious complications from COVID-19.


We conduct this analysis by pooling four quarters of data about new entrants into the Labour Force Survey (from Q4 2018 to Q3 2019). We define key workers based on their SOC codes, using the government's guidance (as at 20 March) as our guide. Since this is based on our interpretation of government guidance, these figures might change when more specific information about who counts as a key worker is released.

We avoid counting key workers in the "local and national government" and "utilities, communications and financial services" categories, as these are less easily defined in data and the government has signalled that it wants to take a finer approach to defining key workers in these groups (for example, specific occupations necessary for the financial sector to run rather than all bankers).

Our main sample is people of working age (16 to 64) who are not children or parents of the head of a household. This includes other relatives (e.g. siblings) and other adults (e.g. roommates). We also restrict to people who have finished education. When we look at key workers by age, we relax the restriction on ages to include everyone aged 16 and over. When we examine the partners of key workers, we restrict the sample to look only at heads of households and their cohabiting partners.