The role of a national statistics institute during a pandemic - meeting report

On 30 March 2021 the RSS Glasgow local group hosted an event with the National Statistician Professor Sir Ian Diamond (pictured). This event was a follow-up event to the first talk Sir Ian gave on 9 October 2020. Due to the ongoing pandemic the event was hosted online and was joined by around 55 participants. The event was one hour long and the talk was followed by questions.

Sir Ian was knighted in 2013 for his services to social science and higher education. He was the Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen until 2018 and chaired the Social Security Advisory Committee 2018-2019 before taking over the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Similar to the previous talk, the presentation was structured with a time line on the right hand side of the slides taking us through the key events that defined the pandemic from October 2020 to March 2021. Professor Diamond started with a summary of the previous talk before sharing analyses on the tiered lockdown system introduced last year. The analyses highlight that behaviour changes as people move across the different tiers indicating that a tiered system can be a valuable tool for controlling the pandemic. The majority of the population appeared to have found it easy to follow the lockdown rules, although that proportion is lower for younger age groups.

Monthly turnover and GDP estimates from the Business Impact of Coronavirus Survey provide crucial timely insights on the economic situation of the UK. GDP fell sharply during the first lockdown and recovered rapidly once restrictions were eased last April. Yet the economy is still not back to pre-pandemic levels, which is likely due to ongoing restrictions. The exception to that rule is the online-retail sector, which has soared under the pandemic and has grown by almost 50% in 2020 – that is the highest growth since the financial crisis of 2008. The number of people on furlough has increased over the most recent third lockdown going from 11% in early December to 18% in mid-January. However, that is still substantially lower than the 31% from the first national lockdown.

The risk associated with Covid-19 varies across different groups in the population. The risk of testing positive has increased for patient facing roles, but decreased for non-patient facing roles between September 2020 and January 2021. Furthermore, ethnic minorities are unproportionally affected, particularly people of Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds.

ONS data on antibodies reveal that by 18 January, approximately 1 in 10 people in Scotland have had antibodies for Covid-19, compared with 1 in 7 in England. That has changed dramatically with the rollout of vaccines, speeding up the number of people who test positive for antibodies, particularly among the older populations. The vaccination programme is being rolled out quickly and uptake is high. Most people in the priority risk groups have been vaccinated, however people of minority backgrounds are underrepresented among the vaccinated population. Vaccine hesitancy seems to be more prevalent among younger men than women (approximately 19% vs15%), but no noticeable differences can be observed among other age groups.

Covid-19 also had a big effect on mental health. Both men and women experience twice the rate of some form of depression than before the pandemic and women are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety or loneliness.
The event was very informative and covered other major topics as well, such as public sector net borrowing, common symptoms of Covid-19, Long Covid and variants.

The talk was followed by questions. The Q&A was lively and an engaging discussion happened between Sir Ian and the audience.

Michael Waltenberger is a PhD student and MacLaurin scholar at the University of Glasgow working on spatial statistics.
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