Exploring the changing impact of COVID-19 on our lives

People walking around going about their day in an urban setting

In March 2020, as the nation was urged to stay at home and only to leave for essential reasons, our lives were turned upside down.  At the ONS, most staff moved to homeworking, and those of us with children found ourselves, in common with millions of others, trying to combine childcare and home-schooling with working in new ways.  Here Tim Vizard looks back over the impact we’ve seen the pandemic having on people’s lives.

The word ‘unprecedented’ has been over-used to describe the past 18 months, but that was the position the ONS found itself in last March when the UK Government tasked us with providing real time statistics to understand how adults in Great Britain were coping as circumstances changed.

In a matter of days, we adapted our Opinions and Lifestyle survey to provide robust weekly estimates of the impacts living with COVID-19 were having on people’s daily lives.  Since March 2020, over 200,000 adults have taken part in our survey across Great Britain and to date, we have published weekly reports reflecting how people were feeling, and the evolving challenges they were facing.

Early priorities were to establish whether people understood how to protect themselves from the virus and if they were taking measures to do so, such as handwashing with soap and water. During these early days, wearing face coverings were not on the agenda in those first surveys of March and April 2020s.

TV and social media were playing important roles in providing information and it was clear that people were taking the coronavirus seriously, with 86% of adults worried that they or someone in their family would be infected. Despite this, many people were rallying round to help each other: 84% of people aged 70+ said someone had offered to organise or deliver food and essential items if they needed to self-isolate.

Yet in those early weeks of the first lockdown, half of adults thought life would return to normal within 6 months.  Last week, just 16% felt life would return to normal within 6 months, with “over a year” the view of 28% of adults.

The extent to which we have learned to “live with COVID” is seen in responses over time. Support for, and compliance with, protective measures such as hand-washing and wearing face coverings have remained high throughout.

People’s behaviour in each weekly report has reflected changing circumstances and the regulations in place over the past 18 months, from moves towards outdoor socialising and going to cafes and restaurants last summer to the growing restrictions towards the year’s end and then into early 2021.

Over time, worry about the impact of COVID-19 on our lives has fallen from 86% back in March 2020 to 48% at the end of August 2021.  We’ve been able to track the numbers of adults working from home and travelling to work throughout the pandemic, and provided insights into how many adults who would like to continue some form of hybrid working in the future. As young people are returning to schools and colleges, we’ve seen how concerned parents were about the effect that home-schooling had on their children’s wellbeing and the strain it placed on adults too.

Nevertheless, nearly half of adults are still ‘very or somewhat worried’ about the impacts of COVID-19.  Personal wellbeing across all measures is still worse than pre-pandemic. Seeing the nation’s wellbeing in real time have brought home the impact the pandemic has had on levels of anxiety in the population, particularly at the start of 2021. In the first three months of this year, more than one in five adults were experiencing some form of depression: double the rate found before the pandemic.

At the end of 2020, we also started watched with interest the roll out of COVID-19 vaccinations. We’ve seen people become increasingly positive about the COVID-19 vaccines, with 96% of adults saying they having already had it or would be likely if offered. Most recently, 94% of people who have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine said they would be very or fairly likely to have a booster vaccine if offered.

As someone who has worked on this survey since the start of 2020, I have found each week’s results fascinating, often resonating with my own experience and that of my colleagues. Delivering weekly results has required a hugely dedicated team across ONS, working long hours to provide timely estimates to our colleagues across Government.  As we move to a fortnightly survey, with the next results published on 10 September, we will continue to explore the impacts, old and new, that COVID-19 is having on our lives.  The fortnightly survey will give our participants more time to respond, and us more time to reflect on findings and incorporate new issues into the survey as life continues to change.

If you are one of the 200,000 people who have taken part in the survey – or any of the others we are conducting – I’d like to say thank you on behalf of all of us at ONS. Your responses have been hugely important in understanding the wide reaching impacts of COVID-19 has had on our lives.

Tim Vizard, Policy Evidence and Analysis Team at the ONS.