Our plans for running Census 2021 in the time of coronavirus

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In less than 6 months from now, everyone in England and Wales will be asked to take part in Census 2021. Run by the Office for National Statistics, the census is a once-in-a-decade snapshot of people and communities in both nations. In this post Iain Bell reveals how the ONS is planning the huge census operation – and adapting to the challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic.

The census is for everyone. Once every 10 years, it helps build the most complete picture of England and Wales.

It is also the largest statistical exercise that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) undertakes, producing statistics that inform all areas of public life and underpin social and economic policy. It is essential the entire population has the chance to provide the information which can help to ensure their communities are well served.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, we need this up-to-date data of the population, to help shape services for society for the years to come.


This major event requires considerable planning, design and quality assurance. We recognise our whole approach must have the trust of our users so today we have published a series of articles which set out our plans for running the 2021 Census operation safely and securely during the coronavirus pandemic, how we are further improving the plans following the 2019 collection rehearsal and our overall statistical design, including the approach to quality assurance.

At the heart of the design is maximising response and minimising undercounts. Last year’s rehearsal identified the importance of having quick and timely management information, very strong community engagement and a well-trained field force who encourage response. We have built on all of these areas since then.

We have already started to print the census questionnaires and our Census Engagement Managers who will work across all the different communities are now in post.  With community engagement being key, we are working with communities to ensure we engage safely in line with the government’s coronavirus guidance and are able to reach out using new forums that have emerged during the pandemic.

Building on the successful work in primary schools in the rehearsal we have just launched our education campaign. By running census-related programmes in primary and secondary schools across England and Wales, we want to engage pupils of all ages in the census and by doing so make Census 2021 a huge success.

The rehearsal showed that our systems worked and integrated end-to-end in the way we expected.

We have also learnt lessons from our close work with other National Statistics Institutes that undertake a traditional census – most notably New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the USA – and in particular the importance of engagement.

The statistical design for Census 2021 sets out our approach to ensuring that we count everyone and only count them once. It sets out a range of methods that have been used in the past and enhancements to these to make use of the increased availability of Management Information to guide our engagement to help maximise response rates

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted us all in different ways, and we have, naturally, had to refine our plans to ensure that everyone can provide their information safely and securely. Our design now means we can conduct the main Census field operation without anyone ever needing to enter a house. All contacts will be socially distanced, field staff will be equipped with PPE in line with government guidance, while our recruitment and training have been moved wholly online.

We recognise though that even with all these systems tested and in place, we may still need to deploy statistical methodologies to ensure the best estimates. We will build upon our Census Coverage Survey approach with increased use of administrative data to help identify and deal with issues.


Since the start of the pandemic, the ONS has carried out scenario planning and undertaken regular readiness assessments in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Through ongoing planning and assessment, we remain confident, but not complacent, of the successful delivery of the England and Wales Census on 21 March 2021. We are also working with National Records Scotland and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency to ensure we continue to produce the UK-wide population statistics necessary.

To keep up to date with all the latest census news visit ons.gov.uk/census

Iain Bell is Deputy National Statistician at the ONS