Covid-19: The amazing things that statisticians are doing

Stories of extraordinary human feats abound in this pandemic. They include the efforts of health and care professionals and personal commitments to support others in the community, perhaps best shown by Captain Tom Moore.

Statisticians are not on the front line of dealing with the impacts of Covid-19. Yet it is clear that one of the battlefields on which the fight against the pandemic is being fought is a statistical one. Slowly and painfully data about the virus and its behaviour are accumulating, and, sometimes working through the night, statisticians are making sense of that data. Creating models for what would happen under different policies, statisticians have provided real-time insight to political decision makers on the pandemic and its social and economic impacts.

More importantly, the progress of the pandemic has been communicated to the public through data and statistics. The value of trustworthy information is emerging as one of the stories of this convulsive experience.

Statisticians in the health sector have built dashboards for the UK, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to provide daily updates to the public. Their colleagues who work on population statistics have provided weekly updates on deaths, which represent the most complete measure of the mortality impact of Covid-19 (published for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). These weekly statistics have developed at an unprecedented pace to provide more detailed insight, for example on deaths in care homes.

Beyond that, statisticians at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have produced rapid insights into the population’s behavioural responses and into the impact on the economy (through its faster economic indicators weekly publication). ONS has also published in-depth analysis, such as its striking findings on the relationship between mortality and deprivation.

Similar efforts are being made by statisticians in other Government departments across the UK, highlighting impacts on areas like transport, and education in England and Wales. These outputs require new, often daily, data collection, and would have seemed incredibly radical only a couple of months ago. And researchers outside Government have also worked at amazing speed, using data published by Government statisticians to highlight emerging issues within weeks – for example the Institute for Fiscal Studies research on ethnicity.

Perhaps most impressive, ONS is now in the field with a household survey that tests for whether people have had the virus already. This testing holds one of the keys to understanding the pandemic. The ONS, working with partners at the Department of Health and Social Care, the University of Oxford and IQVIA, has used its expertise in household surveys to develop the survey.

What have we been doing at the Office for Statistics Regulation? We set out our aims here: we committed to support producers of statistics as they provide the best possible information to the public. We have:

  • granted a number of exemptions to the Code of Practice so that producers can reach audiences effectively;
  • conducted a series of reviews to provide endorsements to the approach adopted for new outputs;
  • held discussions on the core Covid-19 data: the daily dashboards and weekly deaths. We have particularly focused on making sure the differences between the two are clear: the daily dashboards provide a leading indicator, while the weekly deaths provide a more complete picture, albeit with a time lag. There is still a need to provide a coherent overview, though, and at OSR we will continue to press for improvements in coherence.

And we have also maintained our commitment to standing up for need to publish data. We have written to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) about publishing information on Universal Credit claims in the pandemic. And we have written to the Department of Health in Northern Ireland (DoHNI) calling for the resumption of daily dashboards. In both cases the Departments responded well. DWP has committed to publish on Universal Credit, and DoH in Northern Ireland has resumed the daily dashboard.

The efforts of statisticians are in some ways quieter, and less visible, than the work of health and care professionals and people in the food and retail sectors. But the work of statisticians to inform the public is crucial. I hope this blog represents a quiet form of celebration.