Exploring how the UK population and workforce are changing in the pandemic

Shopping street

The impact of the pandemic on the number of people living and working in the United Kingdom is an important question. Measuring the population has been particularly challenging in the last year with the ONS’s International Passenger Service suspended last year and interviews for the Labour Force Survey no longer taking place face-to-face. Here Jonathan Athow looks at the work that is taking place to identify new data that tell us more about the labour market and give us new insights on the UK population.    

Many people have understandably asked the question, has the pandemic changed the number of people in the country? Some estimates, using publicly available data, have suggested that the population maybe over 1m smaller than before the pandemic, but is this correct?  

One of our key measures of how many people are working in the UK – the Labour Force Survey (LFS) – has picked up fewer foreignborn people recently, but with face-to-face interviews no longer taking place, it was difficult to assess whether there really were fewer, or whether we were just finding it harder to get hold of them by telephone 

As the total population in the LFS is fixed to our long running population projections, which are based on the situation before the pandemic, these estimates were also assuming if there were fewer foreign-born workers, there would be more UK-born people here, something which many people were naturally sceptical of.  

To help us answer the question of whether there have been changes in the size of the UK population we’ve been working closely with colleagues across government, and other experts, to identify data sources that could provide more information about how the UK population is changing.  

One of these is HMRC’s ‘real-time information’ or RTI system, which is the source of our monthly employee payroll statistics, cross-checked against National Insurance Number data. This tells us about the nationality of employees and can help give us insights on what is happening to the foreign national population although it is important to note that these HMRC data relate to payroll employees only, rather than the population as a whole.  

Today we have published our initial analysis using these new HMRC data whichwhen comparing the changes in non-UK and UK national employees, suggests much smaller changes in the number of non-UK nationals compared with LFS data. This might also indicate little overall change in the number of foreign nationals in the UK towards the end of 2020 compared with a year earlier. 

We have more work to do to explore data and develop methods to understand this further before we make any changes to our official labour market estimates. But we think it important to share our initial thinking now to explain how we are approaching this issue and to get feedback on how it is developing.   

At the risk of repeating myself, it is important to note that these are only our first insights. We know that no single data source has the answer, so over the next few weeks and months we hope to bring in more data and refine our work 

Understanding the population and international migration  

While today’s publication focuses on the labour market, it is also part of a wider plan to transform how we produce population and international migration statistics. The HMRC RTI data give us important insights but won’t tell the full story, as they only cover employees, not the self-employed, nor those not in work. We are therefore also continuing our work to bring together further sources across government, alongside new methods that will help tell the story of how international migration and the population are changing.  We plan on updating you on this work in April, alongside giving you more information about how we are transforming our official international migration statistics.   

And of course, with the 2021 Census underway, we are looking ahead to the rich insights this will bring about the size and makeup of the UK population in the longer term.   


As we said at the start, these are early insights and our work will evolve. We will continue to develop our sources and methods in the months ahead, sharing this along the way and welcoming feedback from our users. We will also continue to work closely with our colleagues across government to bring together the strengths of different data sources – all with the aim of providing the best possible picture of the labour market, population and international migration.   

Jonathan Athow, Deputy National Statistician for Economic Statistics

Jonathan Athow is Deputy National Statistician for Economic Statistics