Census 2021 outputs: content design and release phase proposals

Closes 5 Oct 2021

Section 6: Taking a census during a period of change

We’re currently in a period of significant economic and societal change. This change is not only because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also a result of Brexit and a variety of other political initiatives. These factors have impacted different groups in different ways. In this section, we discuss the impacts of taking a census in such a period of change.

At the onset of the pandemic, we were already preparing for the census. During this time and the run up to March 2021, we carried out scenario planning and undertook regular readiness assessments. We did this to ensure that we were operationally ready to run Census 2021. We published a series of articles detailing this process. These articles outlined our plans for running the Census 2021 operation safely and securely during the coronavirus pandemic.

We also considered if running a census during a pandemic would result in the data that users need. We concluded that up-to-date data on the population are needed to provide a baseline from which to monitor recovery from the pandemic. Census 2021 data will also enable policy makers to make evidence-based decisions on what steps to take to support that recovery. This will help shape services for years to come.

We assessed the Census 2021 questionnaires to understand the potential impact of the coronavirus pandemic on how respondents answer questions. Where we discovered issues, we made changes to resolve them. As the questions had already been finalised in the census legislation, mitigation was limited to additional guidance on the online form and within the online help pages of the Census 2021 website. We could not change the question wording or the response options at that point in the development process.

The outcomes of this work are detailed in the publication Coronavirus (COVID-19) question guidance report for Census 2021. We considered if any questions referencing “usual” circumstances should look back to before the pandemic, look at the current circumstances or look forward to the expected situation after the pandemic. In general, our stakeholder engagement found that data users wished to continue to collect data as of Census Day, as a snapshot in time. For example, key stakeholders confirmed that asking respondents for their travel-to-work situation on Census Day would be the best option given the circumstances. These stakeholders included the Department for Transport and Transport for London. However, they also expressed that, as data on travel to work are used in long-term transport and infrastructure planning, data as at Census Day would not meet all of their needs.

From this feedback, we agreed on the consistent messaging that the census provides a snapshot in time. We also asked respondents to answer about their current circumstances across all questions. However, in a limited number of scenarios, where someone was temporarily away from work, a valid answer based on current circumstances was not possible. Examples of this included questions on hours worked or travel to work. In these cases, advice was provided on the online help pages that asked people to provide details for the period before temporarily leaving work.

Our aim was to ensure respondents understood the questions as intended and, as a result, answered with reference to their circumstances as of Census Day. Our goal is to ensure that differences in statistics from previous censuses and other surveys represent genuine changes in the lives of people living in England and Wales.

We anticipate that the user needs expressed through previous consultations may have changed. In addition, new user needs will have emerged. For example, this might include the need for information to allow for the development of policies regarding the pandemic.

The remainder of this section outlines the potential changes to the data collected that we’ve identified. Through this consultation, we aim to understand how data users’ needs have changed.

Place of residence

In most cases, the coronavirus pandemic will not have impacted the place of residence. However, there will have been some situations where it has done so.

This may include people with two residences choosing to reside permanently at what had previously been their second residence as they did not need to commute to work. In contrast, there may have been a situation where a person was staying temporarily at their second address on the night of 21 March 2021. In this case, they should have been counted as a visitor at that address and also been included at the address where they are usually resident.

It might also include students who may have been studying from their permanent or family home address instead of a term-time address near their educational establishment.

For Census 2021, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, we updated the collection guidance and statistical methods. We did this to collect the best possible data on students at their term-time address. This will allow users to maximise use of the data on students for long-term planning and service provision. This update meant that we aimed to collect data about students’ term-time address even if one or more of the residents was not there on Census Day. We also collected data about their out-of-term-time address. This is in line with the approach taken in 2011.

Further information on how we’ve adapted our methods to get the best possible estimate of students is available in the report Census 2021 - How we’re ensuring an accurate estimate of students. Since that report was published, we’ve carried out a Student Halls Survey to collect basic demographic information on residents of these establishments. We will use the results of this survey in the census estimation process.

We’re also looking at information recorded at students’ out-of-term-time addresses, where they recorded a term-time address. We can use this information to quality assure and supplement the term-time address information.

We’d like to know what data needs you have for understanding how the pandemic impacted usual residents’ place of residence.

Economic activity and employment

The coronavirus pandemic will have impacted many aspects of employment. For example, this could include an increase in people who were temporarily away from work because they were furloughed or self-isolating. This could also include a likely increase in respondents who were not in paid employment. There will also be a change in characteristics of those looking for work. This includes those made redundant during the pandemic who were looking for work. It also includes those who were self-isolating or extremely clinically vulnerable and not able to start a job outside of the home.

In addition, people might have been working different hours because of the coronavirus pandemic. Alternatively, the nature of their jobs and industries may have changed either temporarily or permanently, such as retail and hospitality switching to home delivery.

We’d like to know what data needs you have for understanding how the pandemic impacted usual residents’ economic activity and employment.

Travel to work

Through engagement with users, we decided that capturing travel-to-work patterns, as they were on Census Day, was the best option available. Users did raise concerns about the future relevance of this data. However, users also highlighted concerns regarding the relevance of pre-pandemic travel-to-work patterns and the accuracy of pre-emptively capturing post-pandemic patterns.

We do not know how travel-to-work and workplace-address patterns will evolve following the pandemic. We expect that the transition to greater levels of home working will remain to some extent. However, other aspects such as reduced use of public transport and car sharing may reverse over time.

The changes impact a wide range of products, including statistics on method of travel to work, the workplace and workday population bases, and origin-destination outputs for commuter flows. This impact is both in terms of reflecting societal change and the level of detail that we can provide. For example, because of the reduced number of people commuting, the origin-destination data are likely to be presented in more aggregated categories across all variables that they’re produced by.

Users need to understand the commuting patterns and methods, and daytime population, to make decisions or plan services in 2022, 2023 and beyond. It's likely that these data on their own may not fully meet user needs for this understanding. 

As a result, we’re already undertaking work to identify potential additional data sources that could help provide information to supplement the census data. These could also provide a more current picture of future travel-to-work patterns. This work aims to build on earlier research on using mobile phone data to estimate commuting flows. We carried out this research as part of our work seeking alternative data sources to provide data between censuses and potentially replace the need for future censuses.

We’d like to know what data needs you have for understanding how the pandemic impacted travel to work. We’d also like to know what data you ideally need for future transport planning and other related decisions.

Workplace zones

We’re considering the need to produce workplace statistics by workplace zone. Workplace zones are a small-area geography designed to contain a consistent number of workers. This allows us to release workplace statistics at a more granular level. The zones provide much greater detail in areas with high numbers of workers and workplaces. For example, this might include city centres, retail districts and business parks.

We produced the data for this geography in 2011. This information was useful to many groups, including government departments, local authorities, health authorities and academics. Applications included:

  • demonstrating broad workplace geographic patterns
  • categorising data for further analysis
  • identifying similar areas for comparative studies
  • providing information for marketing purposes

We also use workplace zone geography in outputs for origin-destination data and small populations.

If we keep the methodology for creating workplace zones unchanged then we will see fewer and larger (in area) workplace zones in major centres of employment, such as city and town centres. We will also see more and smaller workplace zones covering traditional residential areas.

We’d like to know what data needs you have for statistics based on the workplace zones geography.

Impacts on other outputs

Other potential areas of change include migration, health, disability and unpaid care. For example, the uncertainty that the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions on international travel caused might have impacted internal and international migration patterns, including international students.

People’s general health could have been affected by having had coronavirus. Their health could also have been affected by the mental and physical health impacts of the virus itself or lockdown restrictions. In addition, long-term health problems and disabilities may now restrict a person’s activities even if they might not have done so previously. For example, if they are considered extremely clinically vulnerable and were told to shield.

There’s likely to have been a change in the patterns of provision of unpaid care during the coronavirus pandemic. For example, people may have needed care because they were shielding even though they did not need unpaid care previously. Others, who may have provided care before the pandemic, may not have been able to provide care because of coronavirus rules.

This is not a comprehensive list of recent societal changes. We’ve included it to illustrate the range of ways the coronavirus pandemic has impacted society. Census 2021 data will indicate the scale of these changes.

We’d like to know where these changes have impacted your ability to use Census 2021 data to inform planning and decision making. We’d also like to know what data you ideally need to make those decisions.

We’d also like to know how you will use these data in new ways to understand societal change.

We will use this feedback to inform a programme of work seeking to address the identified gaps in data need. This will expand the work already started on travel-to-work statistics to include these additional topics.