Times they are a-changing: and with them, two key ONS surveys

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had a huge impact on our daily lives, from how we live as a society to the running of businesses and workplaces. Here Tim Vizard and Emily Hopson look at how two surveys we introduced at the very beginning of the pandemic have been helping to inform our understanding of its consequences – and the changes we are making now as we learn to live with Covid.

The unexpected arrival of the pandemic created an urgent need for clear information on how people and businesses were being affected. To meet the challenge, we worked fast to build surveys which could provide the earliest possible insights. Two years on these surveys have become essential data sources, not just on the impact of COVID-19 but more recently on the effects of rising prices too.

The surveys

The Business Insights and Conditions Survey (BICS) was set up in spring 2020, specifically to collect insights about how businesses were being impacted by and how they were responding to the pandemic.

At the same time, we also looked at how COVID-19 was affecting the daily life of adults in Great Britain, by adapting our Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) into a weekly rapid survey.

In April 2020, we published the inaugural results from both surveys.

The first OPN release during the pandemic found 86% of adults were worried that they or someone in their family would be infected by the coronavirus, while 77% said they understood how to protect themselves from the coronavirus. However fewer than half (48%) said they had enough information about the UK’s plan for dealing with the coronavirus. Still, in April 2020, about half (52%) of adults thought life would return to normal within six months.

The first BICS release highlighted the early issues facing businesses as the country was in the midst of its first national lockdown. Results showed that 94% of responding businesses indicated that they had an interest in at least one of the government schemes on offer to them; the scheme that was declared of interest most often was the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), having been selected by 80% of responding businesses.

How have we been affected during the last 2 years?

Opinions and Lifestyle

Our OPN analysis has shown how we’ve changed our habits to protect ourselves against the virus, with our most recent findings showing that 75% of people still wash their hands regularly when they come home, 68% wear face coverings when outside the home, and 29% always or often maintain social distancing. In each case, that is down significantly compared with at the peak of the pandemic.

More recent analysis has shown that worry about the impact of COVID-19 is at its lowest level among British adults since the beginning of the pandemic, although 14% of people still think that life will never return to normal.

As the pandemic has evolved, we recognise the importance of continuing to adapt the survey to provide evidence to help understand how our lives are changing. For example, in recent months we have also started collecting data on people’s experiences of the rise in the cost of living and shortage of goods. Recent data from OPN showed that 87% of adults reported that their cost of living had increased; this is an increase from 62% when this measure was first recorded in November 2021.

Business Insights and Conditions

BICS has also adapted to fit an ever-changing economic picture. To remain topical to this changing landscape, there were requests to include questions on a wider number of topics including EU Exit impact, worker shortages, impact of price rises and Net Zero.

The current rise in the cost of living is impacting on businesses as well as households and our BICS survey is capturing this too. Our recent findings showed that more than half (53%) of businesses reported that they had been affected by general price increases in some way; the top three impacts reported by businesses were having to absorb costs (35%), passing on price increases to customers (24%) and having to change suppliers (9%).

What’s next?

As we learn to live with Covid and a volatile economic picture, the ONS is evolving how we capture the experiences of businesses and individuals.

From late April 2022, we’ll be introducing a new OPN publication, “Public opinions and social trends, Great Britain”, replacing “Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain”. This will better reflect the wide range of areas affecting public life today. We’ll still keep a close eye on the impacts of COVID-19 on adult life, but will also look at other important topics such as the cost of living, environment etc. Our survey is changing to be slightly smaller, putting us on a sustainable footing to continue delivering fortnightly insights into adult life in Great Britain.

BICS will continue as a fortnightly voluntary survey, among a selected sample of ~39,000 businesses. However, from April 2022, to minimise the burden on responding businesses and to ensure our questions remain relevant, we will be rationalising the number of questions asked each wave and references to “normal expectations” will be replaced with a defined reference period for businesses to compare against. We will also be introducing specified time periods in some of our questions giving us a more targeted snapshot of what businesses are experiencing, and when.

At a time of so much uncertainty, we’ve been able to provide essential information on how businesses and individuals were coping and trying to manage the challenges they faced. It doesn’t always make for easy reading, times have been tough and this has shown through in the data. However, these changes will ensure that OPN and BICS remain sustainable over time and will continue to capture our ever-changing economy and society.

Image of Tim Vizard

Tim Vizard is from the Policy Evidence and Analysis Team at the ONS

Image of Emily Hopson

Emily Hopson is Head of the Business Insights and Conditions Survey (BICS) at the ONS