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The 2021 Census Is Going Ahead Despite The Pandemic — Here’s Why It’s Still Important

The 2021 Census Is Going Ahead Despite The Pandemic — Here’s Why It’s Still Important
8 min read

This Sunday, households across England, Wales and Northern Ireland will take part one of the UK’s most important mass surveys — the 2021 census. But, why wasn’t it cancelled?

Some form of census has been held in the UK every decade since 1801 — except 1941, when it was cancelled due to the Second World War — and in that time it has evolved from a mere headcount to a detailed questionnaire covering age, gender, ethnicity, and much more. 

But, like many other things in 2021, this year’s census will look a little different. First of all, Scotland, which usually conducts its census alongside the other home nations, has postponed the survey until 2022 due to the effects of the pandemic.

And, for the first time, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) — which oversees the census in England and Wales — expects upwards of 75% of respondents to complete the 2021 forms online.

The census will also be taking place against the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, a challenge which has further highlighted why accurate demographic data is so important. 

Why is the census important?

Simply put, the Census is so important because it provides the most detailed and granular picture available of the population on a single day — 21 March. 

“Census 2021 will provide a rich snapshot of who we are as a nation – the size and structure of the population, the social and economic changes to our lives in light of the pandemic and EU exit, and our employment, education and health,” said Pete Benton, census director for the ONS.

“The information it provides will inform decisions for years to come on public services, including hospitals, schools, houses and education, to meet the needs of our changing society.”

It is also a vital tool for researchers and statisticians. Data from the 2011 Census has been used to understand varying mortality rates from Covid-19 among different ethnic groups, and has helped model transmission of the virus across the population. 

It’s for this reason that the independent NHS Race and Health Observatory has especially urged black and minority ethnic communities  to fill in their form, with director Dr Habib Naqi saying the data would help “obtain a more accurate picture on health conditions and caring responsibilities within black and minority ethnic households”.

How will the pandemic impact the census? 

Every household is required to fill out their census form on or shortly after the 21 March, or face a potential £1,000 fine. 

That is the last resort, however. To support those who haven’t or couldn’t filled out their form, the ONS sends out 30,000 additional temporary field officers to knock on doors and encourage people to complete the census. 

For those who were unable to fill out their form or had trouble accessing it, the ONS is hiring 30,000 additional temporary field officers to knock on doors and encourage people to fill out their census forms.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has expressed concern for this cohort of staff, arguing that it is not safe to be sending large numbers of workers to engage with the public in a pandemic.

"In the midst of a global pandemic, it is deeply irresponsible to recruit 30,000 people for door-to-door questioning of the public, when there are new highly infectious variants of the virus emerging,” a PCS spokesperson said. 

In the midst of a global pandemic, it is deeply irresponsible to recruit 30,000 people for door-to-door questioning of the public – Public and Commercial Services Union

"We have raised serious concerns over safety around the upcoming ONS census and taking into account Scotland has postponed its census, England and Wales must follow suit.”

However, Chloe Smith, minister for the constitution, told PolitisHome she was “confident that the census will be really well delivered this year” despite the challenging circumstances.

“Let's remember that the ONS has experience of having to run [the Census] at some difficult times. A few times ago, it was run at the time of Foot and Mouth Disease.

“The ONS has a track record of being able to adapt to circumstances and I have confidence in all of our preparations… I would really encourage everybody to take part with the confidence that it's safe and also important.”

Operating a census in a pandemic isn’t just a safety issue, however. Some also argue that conducting it at a time when many people’s lives have drastically changed could skew the data.

The most serious concern will be that it will be a snapshot of a strange, unrepresentative time, an image of pandemic Britain

- Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at Oxford University

It’s for this reason that Danny Dorling, a professor of human geography at Oxford University, has suggested that the government should run a top-up census in 2026 to understand the country’s coronavirus recovery.

“The most serious concern will be that it will be a snapshot of a strange, unrepresentative time, an image of pandemic Britain,” he said, writing in the Observer.

“A 2026 census could assess how much we have recovered – or not – in the five years from March 2021. It would fill the gaps in the record," he continued. "A government that was serious about levelling up, as the 1960s governments were, would plan for a 2026 census now.”

What will the 2021 Census look like?

Digital forms were first trialled during the 2011 census, when around 19% of the population chose to respond online. In 2021, the ONS wants upwards of 75% of households to fill in their forms online, in what has been dubbed a “digital-first” approach.

The UK isn’t the first country to try this. Much of the preparation around this move online was built upon the lessons of the 2018 New Zealand census, which was also the country’s first digital attempt. 

The country saw a 4.5% drop in response rates compared to the previous census, and one of the issues raised in an independent review was that difficulties providing paper forms made it harder for some communities to complete the census. 

With concerns such as this in mind, the ONS plans to send paper forms directly to around 10% of households to ensure maximum uptake among those who may struggle to access an online form.

New Zealand's first digital census saw a 4.5% drop in response rates compared to the previous years

Everyone else, meanwhile, will only be sent a code with which they can us to access the digital form for their household. 

“It's always been the case that for the number of people that might prefer to have completed it on paper, there was going to be huge amounts of support to help them do that,” Smith explained.

“Whether that might just be because somebody traditionally is not familiar with the internet or that they're in a particular community that might need a bit more support or help to to complete it. 

“The ONS has got all the plans in place to do that and I've been assured that not only are they going to be doing that extensively, but this year of all years they will be putting particular care around that as well.”

This year, the census has also added three new question areas: veteran status, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The latter two questions will be voluntary and only asked of respondents aged 16 and over. And, a new tick box has been added for people of Roma ethnicity, alongside the existing ‘Gypsy or Irish Traveller’ tick-box.

In previous years, the census has only asked for a person’s gender, but will now ask them to indicate their biological sex, before giving them the option to say whether their gender identity differs from the sex registered at their birth.

The ONS claims this change was needed as there are no official figures on gender identity, and that detailed findings could be used to support work on policy development and service provision, and to further equality, including under the relevant equality law.

Chief executive of charity Stonewall Nancy Kelley said this year’s census marked a “historic moment for LGBT+ communities” as it will provide “an accurate picture of the size and make-up of the LGBT+ population in Britain”.

“'For far too long, our community has been a hidden population. Collecting this vital data will ensure researchers, policymakers, service providers and community organisations are able to understand the needs of LGBT+ people and develop tailored services to help us be treated fairly and achieve our potential,” she said. 

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