ONS Year in Review: The Relentless Challenges of 2021  

A picture of an egg timer with 2021 mingling into 2022

The ONS began 2021 charting the early impact of the first phase of the vaccination programme. We end it with boosters and Omicron. As they review the statistical year once again, Liz McKeown and Darren Morgan reflect on how our colleagues and partners have continued to deliver innovative high-quality statistics and analysis on a scale never seen before. 

This time twelve months ago we described 2020 as a statistical year “like no other” as the ONS had  innovated rapidly to ensure the UK had the statistics it needed to meet the challenges of the pandemic.

The year now passing has seen us build substantially on that work. We’ve addressed not just the continuing challenges of Covid-19 but also provide new insights on other issues that matter. Among them, Climate Change, Worker Shortages and Violence Against Women and Girls.

To do so we’ve been radical in drawing on a range of new data sources and further adapting our methods, analysis and communication. We’ve continued to be ambitious in improving our core statistics too – in total producing over a thousand statistical publications that have both informed the public and given policymakers fresh insights on key issues of the day.

Covid Monitoring and Analysis 

We have built on our previous work and innovated to meet the needs of all our users. Some of the key highlights of the year include:

  • Expanding and adapting the ONS-led Coronavirus Infection Survey (CIS), which has collected 7 million swab tests and 1.5 million blood samples since it began in April 2020, and completing the first round of the School Infection Survey Year 2 (SIS2) with 5,000 pupils at 113 schools tested for antibodies.
  • Increasing antibody testing across the CIS and extending this to 8 to 15-year-olds.
  • Enhancing the level of insight on symptoms of covid, including long covid, positivity by variants, reinfections, and vaccine effectiveness across various stages of the pandemic.
  • Publishing the Vaccine Opinions Survey, a quantitative survey of those who had previously declined vaccinations or were hesitant.
  • Collaborating with NHS-D, NatCen, University of Exeter and Cambridge to publish estimates of depressive symptoms, eating and sleeping disorders and broader mental health issues among children and young people.
  • Using the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) to provide regular updates on public behaviours, including compliance with non-pharmaceutical interventions, wellbeing, working patterns, vaccination behaviours and attitudes, impact of self-isolation and of the pandemic on the clinically vulnerable.

Covid Impact: Jobs, spending and supply

We also rapidly responded to the emerging economic challenges of the pandemic, notably the disruption to supply chains. Highlights included:

  • Continuing to provide weekly real-time insights into pressing aspects of the economy including shelf availability, gas prices and air travel.
  • Developing the Business Insights and Conditions Survey (BICS) to give near-to-real-time insights on wider economic impacts such as supply chain challenges as well as ongoing COVID impacts.
  • Utilising our monthly GDP estimates to provide timely insights on the size and growth of the economy, highlighting differences in recovery across industries.
  • Publishing rich analysis to provide important economic context for emerging issues such as impacts on the hospitality sector and how household finances have fared.

New insights on Climate Change ahead of COP26

This year as the UK hosted the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties we explained how it was the goal of ONS to ensure the UK had the best possible data and insights on climate change: informing effective policy response and helping business, the public and civil society organisations to better understand climate change and its impacts. This included:

  • Leading on the creation of the cross-governmental UK Climate Change Portal, which for the first time brings together data, statistics and insights across the six pillars of: weather and climate, emissions, drivers, impacts, mitigations, and adaptation.
  • Producing ten new outputs around COP26 including: exploring the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on household emissions; providing local insights on carbon dioxide emissions and woodland cover and energy efficiency; and producing fresh insight on individual attitudes and business actions, captured through our OPN and BICS surveys.
  • Co-hosting an event at COP26 with the Met Office on the power of data in decision-making and public understanding of climate change where the new Portal was showcased.

Violence against women and girls

We produced our first comprehensive look at the subject of violence against women and girls, including perceptions of personal safety and experience of harassment. Alongside this we published a data landscape providing links to evidence and statistics from across government, support agencies, charities and academics. It includes evidence available on victims or survivors, perpetrators, services and prevention.

 Better Core Statistics

Alongside drawing on new data sources and producing new analysis, we are continuing to deliver and improve our range of core economic, social and environmental statistics. In particular, we have:

  • Improved our estimates of GDP by introducing double deflation, and including the impact of the Test, Trace and Vaccination Programme, both seen as international best practice.
  • Incorporated new data from the ONS’s Financial Services Survey (FSS) for the first time,  providing a step change to the coverage and quality of our financial data.
  • Reflected pandemic support policies in the Public Sector Finances.
  • Maintained the quality of our Labour Market Statistics by re-weighting the Labour Force Survey to manage the impact of the pandemic.
  • Published new estimates of intangible investment and produced an updated Productivity Development Plan.
  • Transformed how migration is measured, producing our first admin-based migration estimates, launching an explainer series to help users understand how we measure migration and using  statistical modelling to estimate UK international migration approach to produce six months of migration flows.
  • Further developed our natural capital measures including detailing information on ecosystem services for marine and coastal areas in the UK and are also progressing the development of the measurement of green jobs.
  • Continued our work on the Health Index for England working with all of our stakeholders to ensure it meets their diverse needs.

Improving the inclusivity, granularity and coherence of our statistics

We have also been working to improve the inclusivity of our statistics. Last year the National Statistician established the Inclusive Data Task which launched its report and recommendations this Autumn. At the same time we published our high level response to the recommendations setting out the actions we are taking to improve the inclusivity of our statistics and analysis and ensure everyone counts in our data. Alongside this we are working to enhance our collection and analysis of subnational statistics. This has included:

  • Developing a cross GSS subnational data strategy, and producing new estimates of GVA at lower levels of geography.
  • Exploring innovative new ways of telling stories about local areas using a ‘scrollytellling’ approach to data visualisation and dissemination.

We have also worked across the Government Statistical Service (GSS) to improve the coherence of the data and information we provide to ensure our statistics meet user needs publishing a GSS Coherence Work Programme and new outputs and tools including:

  • Our first analysis of rough sleeping in the UK which brought together published data from across the UK to present a picture of rough sleeping and the people who rough sleep in the UK.
  • An Equalities Data Navigator Tool to help people find equalities data.
  • A mapping of loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic article, in collaboration with DCMS.
  • The publication of an interactive Coronavirus Question Bank.

The ONS does not ‘do forecasts’ but 2022 is not likely to be much less busy

As we look to 2022, we will continue to work hard to ensure everyone has the information they need, on the economy, environment and society. Next year also sees us publish results from the Census 2021, which will provide us with a wealth of data to provide the most detailed understanding of people and communities in England and Wales.

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 both to the pandemic and to other emerging challenges. After what has been another challenging year for everyone, we wish you all a safe and relaxing time over the festive period.


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

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

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

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