Understanding exactly how COVID-19 is affecting us is the hardest job we’ve ever had writes Sir David Norgrove

Sick people, and those who care for them, struggle with COVID-19 in a very direct way, but all of us are struggling with this pandemic in different ways – and all of us want to understand it better.

This is where statisticians come into their own. Following in the footsteps of Florence Nightingale, the pioneering nurse and statistician whose 200th birthday we celebrated last week, analysts in the Office for National Statistics and across the Government Statistical Service are helping to make sense of what the virus is doing to us most directly, in terms of mortality.

This isn’t easy or as quick as we would like. The most comprehensive data on deaths come from death certificates, but deaths take an average of four days to be registered.

By linking death registrations to census data, ONS has started to provide remarkable insight into the relationship of deaths to ethnicity, occupation and deprivation. Its work is the foundation for much of the analysis considered by Sage (the group of experts advising the government), and the decisions of ministers – as well as the hours spent poring over any new information by the armchair epidemiologists we have all become.

New surveys – created very quickly – are helping our understanding of how we as individuals are coping, in terms of our physical and mental health, our wellbeing and our finances, and how businesses are responding.

Perhaps most important, ONS is also conducting a random household survey of tens of thousands of people that asks both whether people have the virus now and whether they have had it in the past. This is absolutely fundamental to understanding the pandemic, and the first estimates have now been published.

Similar efforts are being made by statisticians in 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 radical only a couple of months ago. I’m reminded (in a less martial way) of the speed with which our armed forces acquired new kit at the time of the Falklands War.

As well as new outputs, there have been significant challenges with producing more regular, but no less critical, statistics on prices, unemployment, incomes and the like at a time when people can’t go into shops to check what they are charging, and businesses may have no one to answer the phone for a survey. Since the downturn in 2008, we’ve learned just how important it is to keep track of what is happening to the economy with as little delay as possible, and ONS has developed new faster indicators to help with that too.

Access to trustworthy data really matters. To be trustworthy you have to be clear what the figures do and don’t mean, and to make sure they can be found easily, and that they are easy to understand.

The authority that I chair and its regulatory arm, the Office for Statistics Regulation, have been standing up for the public’s right to clear, objective information on the pandemic. OSR has spoken out about the quality and clarity of data available to the public. It has argued for a much clearer recognition of the uncertainty around the UK estimates of deaths associated with COVID-19. It has pushed for publication of data by DWP and the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. And we have urged greater clarity about data on testing, among other things.

Our founding Act of Parliament tasks us to promote and safeguard official statistics that “serve the public good”, and it is our job, now as always, to inform the public with data equally available to all.

The value of contemporary, trustworthy information is one of the stories of this convulsive experience.

Sir David Norgrove is chair of the UK Statistics Authority

This article originally appeared online on 18 May 2020.