How the Office for National Statistics is responding to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic

The Office for National Statistics is gathering vital information on the social and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and feeding it into the government to help planning, protect lives and reduce the impact on the economy. Here Iain Bell outlines the work ONS are doing to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on our society and economy and what the initial results show.

In both the Government and the Public’s response to COVID-19, data is more important than ever. Understanding how the public and businesses are coping, managing and reacting in a timely way is critical. To ensure the country has the best possible information on our society and economy, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has rolled out new online surveys to monitor the public understanding of COVID-19 and its impact on daily life. In addition, we have started a new Business Survey to assess impact on issues such as firm’s turnover, product prices and employment.

Data from these surveys, alongside our ability to access new data sources, is being fed through to Government to assist with response planning. Today, the first results from one of these new surveys – looking at the impact on people and households – is being published, so that we can all take stock and ensure we are doing all we can to help tackle COVID-19. Our evidence and data is published on our COVID-19 page of our website, with a handy roundup blog setting out latest developments.

The Opinions and Lifestyle Survey

Building on our Opinions and Lifestyles survey, we have delivered a specific Coronavirus (COVID-19) web-based survey module. We consulted senior analysts, statisticians and decision makers across Government on requirements, designed and launched it within a week. The first wave had a fantastic response rate with over 1,500 participating. Initial findings have been shared with the Government as part of the rapid response to the outbreak to ensure experts have the information they need to manage the on-going situation.

Business Impacts of Coronavirus (COVID-19) Survey

The Business Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) Survey is being used to collect information about the financial and operational performance of businesses during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Again, developed in consultation with key Government stakeholders, we have designed a wholly new, bespoke survey, delivered online and receiving over 4,500 responses in two weeks, enabling some key breakdowns by industrial sector and size of business.

Although both surveys largely refer to the period before the Prime Minister’s announcement of 23rd March, they start to show how the pandemic is influencing our lives. We are repeating the surveys to build on this baseline and ensure we can continue to understand how our behaviours, feelings and economy are changing.

What we’ve found

 The data we’ve pulled together from our Opinions and Lifestyles survey shows how coronavirus is affecting the whole population. The survey shows that we are less likely to see or visit our friends and loved ones, but more likely to talk to them on the phone. It also shows how society is coming together to help those in need in these unprecedented times.

COVID-19 is also impacting businesses and employees. Many of us are working from home and we are fortunate to be doing so, with a significant proportion of businesses having to reduce staff numbers in the short term.

We’ve found:

  • Over 8 in 10 people (85.7%) say they were either very worried or somewhat worried that they or someone in their family would be infected by the COVID-19 virus; this was higher for at risk groups, ie, those aged 70 and over (91.7%) and those with underlying health conditions (90.4%).
  • Over 7 in 10 adults (77.4%) said they had an understanding of how to protect themselves from COVID-19, fewer than half of adults (47.8%) thought they had enough information about the UK’s plan for dealing with COVID-19.
  • Almost all the adults (99.6%) said they had washed hands with soap and water to avoid infection in the last 7 days, with almost 9 in 10 saying they had increased the frequency of doing so since the outbreak of COVID-19.
  • Nearly all adults either cancelled or postponed plans (89.2%) due to COVID-19 or did not have plans in the previous 7 days.
  • Just over half (50.6%) of all adults said someone had offered to organise or bring food and other essentials if they need to self-isolate or become unwell; this rose to 83.3% for those aged 70 and over.

Of the 4,598 businesses that responded to the Business Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) Survey (BICS) survey:

  • 29% reported having to reduce staff numbers in the short term. Those within the Accommodation and Food Services Sector, the Administrative and Support Services sector and the Arts, Entertainment and Recreation sector reported the largest proportions of reducing staff numbers in the short term in the workforce for the period 9 March to 22 March 2020.
  • Of the businesses who responded to the BICS, 40% reported they were confident they could continue operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, for the period 9 March to 22 March 2020.

We have also found:

  • Overall, online prices of items in the high-demand products (HDP) basket have increased by 1.5% over the period week 2 (23 to 29 March) to week 3 (30 March to 5 April)
  • In the week commencing 23 March, the number of unique visits to UK ports fell by 7.3%. Total visits to UK ports decreased by 12.4% in the same period

Thank you to our survey participants

These insights are thanks to the time many of you have taken to fill in our surveys. Please continue to do so as this information is vital to the decisions being made at this time.

But what this has also shown us, is that now, more than ever, surveys are vitally important to gauge public mood and opinion and the impact on business. It is with thanks to public and business support, that we can carry on compiling vital information. We are asking that if people receive a letter from us asking them to take part in a phone or online survey, it is important they respond.

Iain Bell is Deputy National Statistician at the ONS