No one expected our lives to change as much as they did in 2020.
Suddenly, people in all corners of the globe were urged to stay home to protect health services and save lives.
As medics, scientists and decision makers raced to gather information about what was happening, the value of the work by the UK’s already much respected Office for National Statistics (ONS) soared.
There was an overwhelming need for trustworthy, independent and timely statistics on COVID-19 that could be conducted at a national and devolved level.
Estimating the spread
The ONS took on the challenge, setting up the COVID-19 Infection Survey (CIS) at a rapid pace – and only a few weeks after the pandemic reached the UK.
The CIS is a representative household survey which estimates the number of people testing positive for COVID-19. It is an important and unique indicator of all infections including those without symptoms. This gives vital insight into the spread of the virus and how it affects different groups of people.
Since it started, more than 584,000 people in private residential households have taken part and provided nose and throat swabs for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. The results are based on the presence of genetic material from the virus.
The survey results then enabled the ONS to produce high-quality estimates on the number of people across the whole UK population estimated to have COVID-19 each week.
“It’s absolutely essential to have a good surveillance system - and we’re lucky that we have a very good surveillance system in this country, the ONS [COVID-19 Infection] study, which is a way of picking up across the population- both at a national level and at a regional level, and in different age groups - what is happening. And that detection system is going to be vital.” Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Head of Government Science and Engineering Profession, and National Technology Adviser
One of a kind
The survey is unique in the size and breadth of its sample when compared to other studies and programmes producing COVID-19 statistics.
The survey spans across the whole of the UK and its sample is representative of all four nations of the UK. This has supported the individual and combined needs of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by providing crucial evidence that can be used to make decisions on the pandemic response.
Statistics from the CIS have had a positive impact on the measurement of the population’s health and wellbeing. The COVID-19 Infection Survey has continuously published up-to-date statistics that have been used by all groups of people – from members of the public through to decision makers.
The UK’s National Statistician was part of a core group of experts advising the government ahead of decisions around policy and measures to take in response to the pandemic. Sometimes the National Statistician joined key health advisors, scientists and ministers for regular televised public updates.
Data from the CIS was taken into account by decision makers when the English Government announced that ‘Freedom Day’ in July 2021 could go ahead, marking the relaxation of many restrictions.
These statistics have also helped keep the general public informed of the symptoms of emerging variants and characteristics of those who are most susceptible to infection. This will have supported positive behaviour changes as individuals adapt to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.
As a result of this world-leading survey, the ONS has been promoted as a household name, enhancing the trust in and reputation of its work and the value of statistics as a whole.
Partnerships and collaboration
COVID-19 related statistics including many from the CIS have been vital in supporting the UK’s understanding of the pandemic and informing key policy decisions. The need for these statistics remains today.
The success of this survey would not have been possible without the collaboration between the ONS and its partners which included each the Devolved Administrations, the University of Oxford, University of Manchester, UK Health Statistics Agency, Wellcome Trust, IQVIA and the Lighthouse laboratory at Glasgow.
Statistics for the public good
The ONS’s collaborations and consistency throughout the pandemic has laid the foundations for even stronger statistics that can ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.
It has also showcased how keeping timely and trustworthy statistics at the heart of policy making can make an enormous difference to everybody’s lives and the country as a whole. The survey allowed policymakers to see if people in particular jobs and areas of deprivation were more at risk of infection.
It was and still remains vital that findings from the CIS are communicated clearly to people without a statistical background meaning no one is left behind.
Statistics like those from the ONS’s CIS have the power to inform policy makers and report on progress as they weigh up their responses to issues facing us all. Not only health, but also those spanning inequality, economic issues and climate change.