Has Covid-19 killed off the 220-year-old census?


Covid may have killed the census! Statistics chiefs warn 220-year-old national headcount cannot keep up with pace of change caused by pandemic

  • The £1 billion census cannot keep up with changing population patterns 
  • The headcount has increased the amount of data it collects from the population
  • Some politicians believe the once-a-decade event is a waste of taxpayer’s cash 

The pandemic may have killed off the 220-year-old national census, statistics chiefs said yesterday.

The ten-yearly national headcount, last taken this spring, can no longer keep up with the pace of change in the age of Covid-19, they declared.

In place of the census, which has to be completed by every home in the country and now costs around £1 billion to carry out, the Government may use personal details gathered from sources including tax returns and benefit claims.

This year’s census may be the final one to be held, breaking a tradition going back to 1801

The census has been under fire from politicians in recent decades. Its cost has spiralled, there have been disastrous results, such as in 2001 when the census missed a million people, and its extensive questioning on matters including sex and religious belief has been seen by many as too intrusive

The census has been under fire from politicians in recent decades. Its cost has spiralled, there have been disastrous results, such as in 2001 when the census missed a million people, and its extensive questioning on matters including sex and religious belief has been seen by many as too intrusive

The census has been under fire from politicians in recent decades. Its cost has spiralled, there have been disastrous results, such as in 2001 when the census missed a million people, and its extensive questioning on matters including sex and religious belief has been seen by many as too intrusive.

But yesterday the suggestion of putting an end to the exercise came from the organisation that runs it, the Office for National Statistics.

Pete Benton, population chief of the ONS, said: ‘Traditionally census data reduces in value over the longer term as our circumstances change. The pandemic and Brexit have upped the rate of change still further.’

He said information from this year’s census will rapidly become useless, ‘for example on commuting patterns where the census data will quickly become out of date as our working patterns continue to change.’

Mr Benton said: ‘As we have started to use administrative data, and other new sources, in a more robust way, we have been researching the ongoing utility of the census. The fundamental question that arises is whether it is possible for us to reshape the way we produce population and social statistics without the need for an ongoing national census taken every 10 years.’

The ONS was given the legal power to see tax, benefits and NHS information by Theresa May’s government in 2017, and is already using it to try to improve notoriously inaccurate immigration figures. The organisation is also using private sector databases, for example information bought from the property website Zoopla, and can use material from mobile phone and energy companies and from TV licence records.

The ONS was given the legal power to see tax, benefits and NHS information by Theresa May¿s government in 2017, and is already using it to try to improve notoriously inaccurate immigration figures

The ONS was given the legal power to see tax, benefits and NHS information by Theresa May’s government in 2017, and is already using it to try to improve notoriously inaccurate immigration figures

The ‘administrative’ data means the ONS can build up a close picture of who is living and working in very small areas in close to real time, something beyond the reach of the census.

The census was first established in 1801, partly in response to fears generated by the economist Thomas Malthus that population was outstripping food supplies, and has been carried out at the beginning of every decade since, except in the wartime year of 1941.

Mr Benton said that the ONS ‘will make a recommendation to Government at the end of 2023 on what further change is needed to deliver fully transformed population and social statistics. This will include the role of any future census and, for example, necessary improvements in data collection or acquisition, methods and infrastructure.’

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