Twenty-eight million households are preparing for their Covid close-up on Sunday in what may be the last official census after 180 years of mass data gathering once a decade.
The mandatory questionnaire will largely be answered online for the first time, and statisticians are looking at the possibility of using other digital data sources to provide the information gleaned from many of the 50 questions in a survey that is expected to cost £900m.
Scotland has postponed its census until 2022 because of Covid, but citizens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will provide a snapshot of their lives during the pandemic. It could deliver anomalous answers more helpful to future historians than policymakers.
Questions about employment include “how do you usually travel to work?” and “where do you mainly work?” which could create puzzlement if the answers are “in slippers” and “perched at the kitchen table”. The Office for National Statistics wants answers that reflect the current reality.
Two of the most keenly watched questions a year into the pandemic, in which nearly 4.3 million UK citizens have tested positive for coronavirus, will be “how is your health in general?” and “do you have any physical or mental health conditions or illnesses lasting or expected to last 12 months or more?” Cross-referenced with the other responses on employment, age and ethnicity, it is likely to provide the finest-grain picture yet of the broader health impacts of Covid.
“It’s going to be fascinating,” said Peter Benton, the ONS’s director in charge of the census. “There has never been a more important time to take a snapshot. We have just left the European Union, we have the impact of the pandemic and we will be able to see that in the census statistics.”
Census data is regularly used to inform government policy, which is one reason why Humanists UK, a charity that promotes secularism, is urging non-religious people to answer the question: “What is your religion?” with a straight bat. In the last two censuses it has flushed out a few hundred thousand Jedis.
This time anyone considering such a response is being urged to answer “no religion” to avoid skewing data that might be used, for example, to decide how much funding goes to faith-based schools.
The ONS will also ask about gender identification and sexual orientation for the first time. The questions will be voluntary, unlike most of the others, which are a legal requirement enforced with fines of up to £1,000, and they will be asked only of people aged 16 and over.
If the answer to “is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?” is “no”, it asks for “the term you use to describe your gender”. On sexuality, it asks for a tick against “straight or heterosexual”, “gay or lesbian”, “bisexual” or “other sexual orientation”, which allows a term of choice to be added. Any member of a household wanting to answer in private could request their own form, Benton said.
The LGBT rights charity Stonewall described it as “a historic moment” that promised to paint an accurate picture of the size and makeup of the LGBT+ population, which would “help us be treated fairly and achieve our potential”. The gender question is not included in Northern Ireland.
The ONS hopes 75% of households will respond online but has drawn up lists of “hard to count” neighbourhoods with weaker broadband access and higher numbers of students, sofa surfers, non-English speakers and people who live in houses of multiple occupation. It will despatch teams to deliver printed census forms to these as well as royal households, rough sleepers and diplomats.
The first results are expected in March 2022 and a decision will be taken in 2023 on whether it will have been the last census after the final results are in and can be compared with other ways of gathering the same data.