Census 2021: Asking Once-in-a-Decade Questions During a Once-in-a-Century Pandemic

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Every ten years since 1801 (apart from 1941) England and Wales have undertaken a census of the population. In other words, we have systematically recorded information on all people and households, providing the most complete source of data planners could have at their disposal.

The Census dataset is unique in its completeness as it asks everyone, everywhere, the same questions at the same time. Until now, questions have been clear to interpret, answered by nearly everyone (94% response rate in 2011) and led to great insights about the way in which we live our lives. However, the pandemic undermines these Census standards that are normally a given.

The impact of the pandemic is obvious when considering the answer to the question ‘How do you usually travel to work?’. With a temporary government mandate requiring all who can work from home, to work from home, it needs some thought on how best to answer. An example – from the start of the year Quod has had a new home at 8-14 Meard Street yet most of us have never been there. Should I answer that I work from home even though I know I will be first in line to attend the office when the opportunity arises? It’s difficult to see how this question will be interpreted consistently. Let alone inform analysis of commuting plans for the next decade, as the answers to the 2011 Census did the last. Should we really be asking a once-in-a-decade question during a once-in-a-century pandemic?

The ONS has clearly considered this potential range of interpretations as an informative has been added stating you should select the answer that best describes your current circumstances. However, this does not go far enough to preserve the quality of data needed. It reflects the difficult situation the ONS finds itself in with Census questions written into law, making any amendment or addition difficult to come by. The questions we’ll be answering on the 21st March 2021 were laid before parliament on the 2nd June 2020, long before it became clear that they would be insufficient.

So, if the questions cannot be amended, why was the Census not postponed? With Scotland choosing to postpone its Census by a year the basis for the rest of United Kingdom’s decision to continue is not clear. What is clear is the implication for not doing so could be huge. Estimates suggest that total UK population fell by 1.3 million over the last year, with London being the most significantly impacted[1]. If true, there have been significant national and international shifts in population. Given population statistics are calibrated with the Census, these, likely temporary, shifts in population will have a significant impact on local authority funding allocations and housing targets. Creating significant winners and losers for many years to come and ultimately undermining local authority’s ability to plan effectively.

It’s an even more worrying thought when you consider this in the context of the ONS’s plans to shift away from a Census style of data collection towards continually updated administrative data. Although a progressive move that would allow a continuous stream of information and potentially an earlier than 2031 correction of the issues highlighted above, this change of approach would mean the 2021 Census will be the last.  As a result, the answers here could be the reference point by which all future data is calibrated.

The Census is the gold standard of data, often being the only source of information as comprehensive at a granular level. Yet the decision not to postpone it this year will be a costly one with collected data being undermined by the inconsistent interpretation of questions and the capture of temporary effects, ultimately resulting in long term consequences for planning and beyond.


[1] https://www.escoe.ac.uk/estimating-the-uk-population-during-the-pandemic/

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