Statistics are vital: An interview with Deborah Lyness 

'Statistics Are Vital' is a joint campaign by the Royal Statistical Society and Significance magazine, celebrating the work of statisticians during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

The RSS spoke to Deborah Lyness, senior principal statistician at the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), about her work on Covid statistics in Northern Ireland.  

‘I think my team and I were all driven by the enormity of what was unfolding across the world and the need to help in the best way that we could…’

How have you been involved in the response to Covid-19?  
My role is to lead the Vital Statistics & Administrative Research Support Branch at NISRA. During the pandemic my branch has played a vital role in publishing timely official statistics and research relating to Covid-19 deaths, utilising the information captured by the NI General Register Office via the death registration process.  

When did you realise that Covid was going to have a massive impact both on your home life and your work? Were you able to keep any sort of work/life balance?  
From very early 2020, as coronavirus tracked across the globe, I anticipated that this new virus might have an impact on my team’s work and we started to consider potential user needs well before the first Covid death occurred in Northern Ireland on 18 March 2020. However, I had no foresight of the almost exponential increase in demand for our data that was to come or the high-profile status the statistics would ultimately have and continue to have throughout the pandemic.

Keeping a work-life balance has been quite a challenge but I suppose the pandemic has driven so many changes to work and life routines for so long now that it’s hard to imagine what it used to be like!  

How did you cope with the sudden interest in your work and the pressure to deliver?  
The first thing I needed to do was boost the number of staff in the Vital Statistics Unit, which in early 2020 was under-resourced to cater for even pre-pandemic needs. Thankfully, staff from the wider branch and beyond were keen to help and could temporarily move from less business-critical areas. One of the first critical steps was to set up a range of data sharing agreements for daily and weekly data flows to facilitate operational requirements in other government departments. After this, the key work was to establish a weekly report on the numbers of Covid-19 related deaths, designed for public consumption and which would also align to other similar outputs across the UK. This report evolved over the course of the first months of the pandemic as interest moved to different aspects of Covid’s impact.

This was all being done alongside ‘business as usual’ work, not to mention new ‘working from home’ arrangements as the Covid regulations required; that, of course, has brought its own challenges but I’m thankful that my daily travel to work time was reduced from 1.5 hours to 30 seconds - that made a big difference in keeping on top of the demands!   

How did you and your colleagues stay motivated?   
I think my team and I were all driven by the enormity of what was unfolding across the world and the need to help in the best way that we could, which was through the provision and publication of timely and robust data. Seeing the data being so heavily used and relied upon has also helped create a shared imperative to ‘get on with it’!

There has definitely been a renewed sense of comradeship within the team, perhaps because the data reminds us every day  of the tragedy Covid has brought to many, as well as the fear of what could happen to our own families. We have all had to be resilient on many levels and I am indebted to my team as well as my line management who continue to be simply amazing.  

What’s the greatest challenge you have faced during the pandemic?  
I think the early days, from April to June 2020 posed the greatest challenge. It was a combination of managing the intense work demands - often needing 12-14 hour working days, adapting to working from home and the new technologies to support that - while at the same time sharing the kitchen table with my 11-year-old daughter and trying to keep track of her productivity levels in the home-schooling environment, as well as monitoring how she was coping with the newly imposed social isolation.   

Which aspects of your work on Covid are you most proud of?  
In the early pandemic there was much confusion about the different definitions of a Covid-19 death and, in turn, the associated daily and weekly counts. As the NISRA weekly report contained two different measures and compared these to a third measure, there was significant scope for misinterpretation. In liaison with the departmental press office, I took part in a number of closed, virtual media briefings to coincide with the statistics going live, to talk through the findings. These were highly successful events evidenced by the clear reporting in the media and the straight lifting of NISRA graphics.

This approach has subsequently been adopted for other releases involving complex methods or definitions and has been mutually beneficial, given that the media are a key user group of NISRA’s outputs. My team has also done great work on enhancing our data visualisation capability so that key trends are clear and easy to track.   

What positives do you take from this otherwise difficult period?  
It’s been a crazily busy time but lockdown days have flown as a result and I’m grateful for that as I appreciate this has been such a tough time for so many. Working relationships have been built and enhanced at branch, NI and UK level, and we have learned that we can do things faster and better. On a completely different note, working from home allowed me to spend some precious time with my pensioner cat before we lost him in August 2020. 

What’s likely to change in your role as we move out of the pandemic, or will some things stay the same?  
I think the need for faster and more real time data is here to stay. Quality will always be at the heart of official statistics but we will need to continue to innovate to reduce production times and create outputs that are more flexible to meet the many different user needs.  

How would you summarise the contributions made by statistics and statisticians in tackling this global public health emergency?  
I believe that access to robust and timely statistics about the Covid-19 pandemic have been critical for understanding the timing and severity of the pandemic and the best strategies for responding in different contexts. We have experienced almost everything that has happened since the start of the pandemic by following the numbers, and deriving from them significance and meaning - not only in relation to the immediate issues such as, for example, infection and death rates but also the broader impacts on education, the economy and mental wellbeing. I know I will reflect on this time in my career as possibly the most rewarding.   

Read interviews with more statisticians on our Statistics Are Vital web page.

Load more