GKB: Geodemographics Knowledge Base

Written by Ian White (retired from ONS after seeing through five UK censuses)

Ian White

The worldwide social and economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected the implementation of the 2020 round of international population and housing censuses. National Statistical Offices have had to face the challenge of producing timely, accurate and reliable census statistics last year, this year, and more than likely, next year as well, while the pandemic persists.

Most countries that do not rely exclusively on registers for their censuses (such as the Nordic countries) will therefore see the plans for their current census affected in some way or another, whether in the form of postponed delayed census collection, in preparatory activities, or in the processes undertaken to ensure quality of the outputs.

In response to a recent United Nations survey on the impact of COVID-19 on the current round of international censuses1, nearly three quarters of the 119 responding National Statistical Offices (NSOs) that had planned to carry out their censuses in the peak period 2020-2021 reported being affected, or anticipated being affected, by the pandemic in one way or another. This impact was felt to a greater extent by countries with a census in 2020 (83 per cent of whom were affected), but less so for those censuses in 2021 (65 per cent).

The impact on preparatory operations (covering activities such as questionnaire design, publicity, procurement of services and materials, rehearsals and field staff recruitment and training) was more severe for those countries with a census in 2021, for which 54 per cent of NSOs reported that most or all of such activities had been affected, compared with just 46 per cent for censuses in 2020. As many of these preparatory activities in such cases would have been scheduled in 2020, when the pandemic was at its peak, this profile is perhaps not surprising.

Of these several preparation activities the most affected was the recruitment and training of field staff for which more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of NSOs reported having to postpone or cancel such training. For countries with a 2020 census this proportion rose to three quarters (76 per cent) but the impact was a little less severe (62 per cent) for censuses in 2021.

Among the responding countries that had originally scheduled a census in the year 2020, just over a quarter (28 per cent) managed to carry out the enumeration in the same year but either had to extend the period of enumeration by weeks or months or had to postpone the census to a later date in 2020.

Ian blog census pic

More than half of the countries had to postpone the census to the year 2021, while 15 per cent postponed the census to the year 2022 or beyond. Only 5 per cent of countries managed to conduct their 2020 census without postponing or extending the enumeration period. In respect of censuses scheduled for 2021 half of the NSOs had to postpone the census to a later date in that year while quarter postponed the census to the year 2022 or beyond.

Among those countries that had reported no impact from COVID on the preparatory or enumeration operations, the most commonly cited reason (61 per cent of countries) was the fact that the NSO was using administrative registers as the main source of census information thus significantly reducing, or eliminating altogether, the need for a field operation.  For censuses in 2020 this proportion was much lower at 38 per cent but for censuses in 2021 the proportion was somewhat higher at 70 cent, reflecting the greater number of European register-based censuses being carried out this year in accordance with EU regulations.

Among the 39 per cent of countries that reported that they had not been affected by COVID-19 the main reasons given were that:

  • the fieldwork had been completed before the arrival of the pandemic;
  • the impact of the pandemic had not spread significantly or because it had brought under control due to public health measures;
  • the impact was not yet clear enough to require the postponement of preparatory and field activities; or that
  • the census had already been affected by other factors such as political instability, lack of funding, or failure to implement the necessary census law in time.

It should be noted, however, that even those censuses for which the preparatory and enumeration phases were not adversely affected may not be totally immune to the impact of COVID on the subsequent data processing, evaluation and dissemination stages of the census operation.

Nearer home, many of the preparatory activities for the 2021 Census in England and Wales were, of course, carried out at the height of the pandemic before the of introduction of the vaccination programme could reduce the effect of infection. Changes to the design of the data collection operation included:

  • clerical checking of addresses using administrative data sources rather than a field check
  • more intense promotion of the online response option
  • conducing community outreach programmes online
  • greater use of desk-top training of field staff
  • contingency for extending the enumeration period if necessary and conducting follow-up interviews only on the doorstep or by telephone
  • strict social distancing control during the post enumeration survey

The outcome of these and other changes was that a response rate of 97 per cent was achieved – the best response rate since the 1981 Census. This was big surprise for everyone! And was probably achieved because of the novelty of competing the census form online and, more likely, because filling in the questionnaire provided something for everybody to do on a Sunday afternoon during Lockdown. However, with the postponement of the census in Scotland to next year the prospect of ONS being able to produce relevant, timely and comparable UK census outputs see rather distant at present.

1 United Nations Statistics Division. Report on the result of the UNSD survey on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on 2020 round of population and housing censuses. 

Note: Ian White has been involved, prior to his retirement from ONS, on each UK census 1971-2011, and has been a regular member of the MRS Census and GeoDems Group since its inception. He is currently assisting the UN on the preparation of a handbook for countries considering moving to a register-based census methodology, and is involved in the preparations for more traditional censuses in Albania, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan

He has still not given up the hope that ONS will take an interest in getting his long-awaited book on the history of the census in the UK see the light of day.


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