Looking back at 2020: A statistical year like no other

As we head towards the end of a very challenging year, analytical directors, Liz McKeown and Darren Morgan reflect on the huge efforts put in by colleagues at the ONS to maintainimprove and develop new high-quality statistics on a scale never seen before. 

The Coronavirus pandemic has meant the ONS, like everyone else, has had to adapt quickly to support the concerted analytical effort and production of statistics that the country relied upon.  We have been ambitious as we adapted existing publications, provided new and specialist in-depth insights, developed dashboards and produced new data series. At all times, we have ensured the public, businesses and policy makers have the information they need, at a time when they need it most; a vital and long-standing role of the ONS.  

The RSS has now recognised two figures from ONS in their 2020 Statistics of the yearour work into excess deaths in care homes has been awarded the 2020 UK Statistic of the year and our work into depression in adults during the pandemic has been highly commended in the same category. These statistics have helped us shine a light on the impact of the pandemic.  

In 2020 alone, the ONS will have released over 1,000 publications. Much of our work has focused on us providing new insights on the impact of the pandemic over the last 9 months. Here are a few highlights of the work done this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: 

These are just a few examples of our work this year. To find out more please look at our dedicated COVID-19 page, which provides a list of all the analysis we have done to date. 

Throughout the year, close collaboration across the Government Statistics Service has ensured prompt and cohesive action could be taken in response to the emerging COVID-19 crisis. A testament to that close relationship, today we have published social and economic insights through a series of charts using data published by a range of government departments. 

While much attention has been drawn to the wide-variety of analysis responding to COVID-19, we have also maintained integral work to ensure the production and development of our suite of core statistics remains sustainable and on track, as well as continuing to ensure we are in a strong position as we approach the 2021 census. Here are a few highlights: 

  • Publishing experimental GDP estimates using double deflation methods, seen as international best practice. 
  • Delivering fast-paced, conceptually ground-breaking work to measure changes in public sector output – particularly in education and healthcare – placing the UK at the forefront of efforts to measure the impact of the pandemic on public services in near real time. 
  • Including, for the first time, natural capital in the Blue Book. This is a big step in ensuring nature is accounted for in economic accounting and lays the foundations for future enhancements. 
  • Addressing the National Statisticians commitment to improve the inclusivity of our data and analysis by establishing the Inclusive Data Task Force.  
  • Accelerating the transformation of our migration statistics, adapting our plans in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to move away from the International Passenger Survey and harness the power of administrative data to deliver new measures of migration (Admin-Based Migration Estimates – ABMEs).  
  • We have introduced a new experimental Health Index for England, providing a single value to measure the health of the nation. This beta version was published alongside a consultation, the feedback from which we will use to develop our methodology in 2021. 
  • Continuing our work to understand the changing economy, society and environment at the local level, through our work on towns and highstreets. We also produced new analysis on seaside and coastal towns, using new experimental data from Facebook on changing population densities.  
  • Introducing a significant improvement in the accuracy of our household income statistics thanks to new top income adjustment developed in collaboration with DWP. We also produced new analysis of the income, spending and wealth for the same households, providing new insights into financial resilience.  
  • Bringing together and publishing the first comprehensive view on Modern Slavery in the country, a topic that by its nature is often hidden and therefore misunderstood. We have also published compendiums on child abuse and domestic abuse. Shining a light on these topics, helps not only policy makers understand the extent to which people are victims but also gives the victims a voice.  
  • Sourcing new data in partnership with others to now report against 81% of headline indicators for the Global Goals on our new sdgdata.gov.uk world-leading website.  
  • Completing a consultation on the Reform to Retail Prices Index (RPI) Methodology, this has provided clarity on the future of the RPI and moved us towards a more settled landscape on consumer price statistics.  
  • Making significant progress on alternative data sources, including acquiring scanner data, and developing new methods and systems. We remain on track to include these new data sources in our headline measures of inflation in 2023 but will be publishing research findings in the lead up to that. 
  • Producing brand new publications on how the UK trades with the rest of the world such as trade in goods and services by business characteristics.  

As we look to 2021, we will continue to do the best we can to ensure everyone has the information they need, on the economyenvironment and society. Next year also sees us asking everyone to take part in the once-in-a-decade Census in England and Wales. This will provide us with a wealth of data to provide a snapshot of people and communities in both nations.  

Finally, we would like to thank both those of you who have taken part in our surveys, providing the vital information that we rely on, and our colleagues across ONS and the analytical community who have come together and worked hard to support the analytical response to the pandemic. After what has been a challenging year for everyone, we wish you all a safe and relaxing time over the festive period. 

Liz McKeown is Director of Public Policy Analysis and Co-lead for COVID-19 Analysis at the ONS

Darren Morgan is Director of Economic Statistics Development and Co-lead for COVID-19 Analysis