The Office for National Statistics has insisted the 2021 census for England and Wales will go ahead in March, despite the possible risk of spreading Covid.
The agency said the impact of coronavirus and Brexit meant it was more important than ever to conduct the census as planned on 21 March. It added that postponing it would cost an estimated £360m.
A team of 30,000 field workers, who will be sent to homes to remind people to complete the forms, will be given regular lateral flow tests for the virus to mitigate the risks.
The head of the census, Pete Benton, said: “They’ll be tested twice a week for coronavirus. And of course, they won’t go out if they have a positive test. We’re just working through the details of that at the moment.”
The ONS is hoping that at least 75% of the UK’s 26m households will complete the survey online. But it anticipates that about 6m households will require follow-up visits to offer reminders and advice. Benton stressed that the field workers would be issued with PPE and would not enter anyone’s home.
He said: “It’s really no different from somebody delivering a parcel or a takeaway meal. Staff will be safe and socially distant and we’ve judged the risk to be manageable.
“There’s never been a more important time to have a census. We’ve been living with coronavirus for a year, which has had all kinds of impacts, and we’ve just left the European Union. Understanding where we are now as a nation really is fundamental to how we plan our way forward and how we monitor progress. And so it’s critical to understand who we are, and the census will paint that picture now.”
He added: “Our paramount consideration is: can we keep the public safe? Can we keep our field staff safe? And can we produce good statistics? And the answer to all of those questions as we reviewed it with experts is: yes, we can.”
Benton said the visits would be no longer than “just minutes”. He added: “Some may need some advice about how to access this system, we can provide that advice verbally. And for those that want it we can hand over a paper questionnaire, or if they prefer they can phone our call centres to order one. So it’s a very brief conversation.”
The ONS will not impose any age limit on those conducting the field work. Benton said: “It’s up to people to choose to apply, people will make their own judgment. We’re not putting constraints on that. The requirement is for people to be able to use a phone, and to be able to have a polite conversation on the doorstep.”
This week, Glastonbury music festival was cancelled for a second year and there have been fresh calls to reschedule the already postponed Tokyo Olympics. And last year Scotland’s census was postponed until March 2022. But the ONS decided against postponing the census. A delay would involve waiting a year, because the census needs to take place in late March to allow sufficient hours of daylight for field workers to conduct doorstep visits.
Benton said the decision to go ahead was approved by the Cabinet Office. Asked if the government could yet call it off, Benton said: “I’m not expecting that to happen. We’ve continued to work with government and ensure that we are continuing to adhere to government guidance.”
Tony Vose, a former census worker, questioned the decision. He said: “I can see no justification in not postponing the 2021 census whilst in the middle of this crisis. Many of the part-time staff are likely to be over 60. How can the government issue instructions on safety measures to avoid spreading Covid-19, and be complicit in letting this go ahead?
“There is no logical reason why this cannot be postponed in the same way that the elections in May 2020 were.”