The importance of UK-wide collaboration in monitoring COVID-19

The ONS-led COVID-19 Infection Survey (CIS) has been a vital source of data on the virus and its impacts, winning international recognition and several prestigious awards. Supporting the individual and combined needs of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it has also become a leading example of collaborative working across the devolved administrations. In this post Esther Sutherland and Megan Crees show why that partnership has been central to the project’s success.

Coherence

Throughout the pandemic, the ONS has continually collaborated with the devolved administrations to deliver coherent COVID-19 statistics that are representative and reflect local, regional and UK-wide needs. The production of quality, logical and consistent statistical outputs and messaging across all four UK countries has been underpinned by open communication between the ONS and the devolved administrations throughout changing landscapes.  The  principles of this collaboration are set out in the Concordat agreed between the UK Government – including the UK Statistics Authority and Office for National Statistics) and  the devolved administrations in 2021.

Messaging

Dedicated liaison teams have facilitated the identification of each country’s different priorities, and the sharing of expertise on how best to communicate our findings. Maintaining consistency when communicating definitions has also been a priority when working together. This has worked especially well when ensuring that definitions relating to health and COVID-19 need to be translated into Welsh for example, to allow for accessibility across all four countries.

Analysis

Comparative models across countries have been developed to ensure that each of the four UK countries are provided with consistent analysis across borders, but also provides analysis that is meaningful at the individual country level. Our sub-regional analysis includes a model for Great Britain as well as separate models for Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

Our model works geographically, and the geo-spatial model incorporates physical land distance between regions. This reflects the geography of the four countries, as Northern Ireland does not share a land border with Great Britain. This means that our model produces estimates that are more representative of positivity rates for each country, reflecting the different experiences and trends in each country.

Collaboration

Consultation and wider collaboration have been key elements of our successful working relationships with governments across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

With each of the four UK countries having their own health agencies, coherent and comparable data for the whole of the UK can be difficult to coordinate. There are very limited examples of central sources of health-related data. In a context of COVID-19, the inability to join up and compare infections across borders can fracture the wider UK picture. Monitoring COVID-19 positivity rates across the UK through the CIS has bridged a crucial gap in this vital data.

Summary

The consistent collaboration between the ONS and the devolved administrations throughout the pandemic has laid the foundations for even stronger statistics that can continue informing policy makers across all four UK countries and tracking health, economic and climate change issues in communities across the UK in future.

It also showcases how keeping timely and trustworthy statistics at the heart of policy making can make an enormous difference to everyone’s lives and the UK as a whole.

The clear guidance laid out by the Concordat has allowed the CIS to produce the ‘gold standard’ statistics that it has for over two years.

Megan Crees is External Liaison and Engagement Officer for Health Analysis and Pandemic Insights

Megan Crees is External Liaison and Engagement Officer for Health Analysis and Pandemic Insights at the ONS

Esther Sutherland is Head of Strategic Development

Esther Sutherland is Head of Strategic Development at the ONS