A voice for UK businesses – a milestone for our business insights survey

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Back in March 2020, life changed very suddenly as COVID-19 struck. In the first days of lockdown the ONS set up what it thought would be a temporary rapid business survey to assess how the pandemic was impacting UK businesses. Gemma Rabaiotti explains how nearly four years and 100 waves of responses later, the Business Impact of Coronavirus survey– now renamed the Business Insights and Conditions survey – (BICS) has cemented its place as a timely and vital voice on the challenges facing businesses today.  

Setting up the BICS survey was an example of successful collaboration in challenging times, and quickly too. The ONS survey collection team, questionnaire design teams, methodologists, publishing and data visualisation along with our coordination teams all worked together to design, implement and publish BICS within a month of the survey’s inception.  BICS is also a key example of cross government teamwork as we are able to provide rapid insights into high profile and crucial policy topics.  

The survey is now established, but it is constantly evolving to ensure BICS stays relevant. We work with a wide range of users to ensure we are asking the right questions at the right time.  

Nearly 40,000 businesses across the UK take part and over time the questionnaire has evolved to take account of the impact of and responses to various new and sometimes unforeseeable challenges. 

It asks questions on topics including the recruitment and retention of staff, changes in costs and turnover, and future trading expectations. The responses are published just four days after each survey closes, a truly rapid response ensuring the ONS are capturing the mood of UK businesses in practically real-time. 

Looking back to the initial stages of the pandemic, and what the first insights from the survey showed. Businesses were questioned between March and May 2020, and the results showed 30% of firms expected their workforce to decrease at the beginning of the pandemic.  When first surveyed, 71% of businesses who continued to trade (as if you remember back then, many could not) said their turnover was substantially lower than normal, rising to 75%, showing the heavy impact the pandemic was having in those early and uncertain days. 

In the summer of 2020, our results showed around 95% of businesses were currently trading. We know the arts, entertainment and recreation industry was particularly badly hit by the pandemic and indeed they had the largest proportion of the workforce furloughed, at 51%, compared with 13% across all industries. This rapid, sector level information was a vital part in providing the government with what they needed to make policy decisions at this time, including feeding into decisions on furlough.  

Fast forward to 2023 and while the pandemic impacts have faded for many businesses, new difficulties remain. Higher inflation and an increased cost of living have made their mark and conditions are testing for many. In November 2023, BICS reported that business conditions remain challenging but there were small signs of positive improvement for some measures. However, nearly two-thirds of businesses reported some form of concern for their business when looking ahead to December. 

BICS has captured so much during its four years, a lasting record of how businesses weathered some of the most turbulent times in living memory. So, let’s toast the survey that was only going to be temporary, but which has made its voice heard and has become an essential resource for stakeholders and policymakers. We look forward to the future insights it will bring and express our sincere thanks to the businesses who take part in BICS. 

Gemma Rabaiotti

Gemma Rabaiotti is Lead Analyst for the Business Insights and Conditions Survey at the ONS.