How the UK’s longitudinal studies are helping society navigate the COVID-19 pandemic

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Professor Alissa Goodman, Director of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), discusses how CLS rapidly responded to the UK’s lockdown by launching a special COVID-19 survey to capture time-critical experiences of the pandemic, and looks at the first analyses of data.

The spread of COVID-19 across the UK, together with the drastic economic and social restrictions to slow its spread, and policy measures put in place in mitigation, were unprecedented. More than ever, rapid evidence has been needed on the unfolding impacts across the population, especially amongst the most vulnerable.

At the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), we moved very quickly during the UK’s lockdown to capture time-critical aspects of people’s experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our aim was to help understand the economic, social and health impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, and as we’ve been following nationally representative groups since birth, our studies are an especially valuable resource for understanding the lifelong factors which shape vulnerability and resilience to the pandemic’s effects.

Our first COVID-19 questionnaire

In May 2020, together with the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL, we invited participants in five national longitudinal studies – the Millennium Cohort Study, Next Steps, the 1970 British Cohort Study, the 1958 National Child Development Study, and the MRC National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD) – to complete an online survey about their experiences during lockdown. This online survey was put together rapidly, covering questions on topics including physical health and health behaviours, mental health and wellbeing, time use, family, care, education, work and finances.

Over 18,000 study members, currently aged 19, 30, 50, 62 and 74, completed this COVID-19 survey, providing invaluable insights into the varying ways the pandemic has impacted five generations.

Data from the four CLS studies are now available for download at the UK Data Service, and NSHD data will be available soon.

Key briefing papers so far

We are currently analysing the data to highlight important ways in which people’s lives changed during lockdown and have produced a series of briefing papers highlighting key findings from the data, including on people’s family life, employment, finances and mental health.

Parenting

With schools closed, mothers were more likely than fathers to stop working to help educate their children. Our briefing on parenting and time use in the CLS cohorts showed that mothers in our survey spent around double the time than fathers on home schooling. We were the first national COVID-19 study, to our knowledge, to look at parental time use, not just on schooling, but on other interactive activity with children, like playing, reading, and doing puzzles. The figure below (Figure 1 from our briefing) shows just how much time mothers of children primary age and below, were spending interacting with kids during lockdown: on average more than 8 hours a day, when they had a child of primary school age.

Source: Parental involvement in home schooling and developmental play during lockdown – Initial findings from the COVID-19 Survey in Five National Longitudinal Studies by Aase Villadsen, Gabriella Conti, and Emla Fitzsimons

Related to this, our briefing on finances and employment showed that mothers took the brunt of the reduction in work compared to fathers: as can be seen in the Figure below (Figure 5 from the briefing). While 30- and 50-year-old men and women without dependent children showed a similar rate of stopping work, mothers were much more likely to have stopped work than fathers, especially when their children were at younger ages.

Figure 5: Stopping work, by gender and age of children at home

5a: 50-year-olds

5b: 30-year-olds

Source: Finances and employment during lockdown – Initial findings from the COVID-19 Survey in Five National Longitudinal Studies by Bożena Wielgoszewska, Francis Green and Alissa Goodman

Employment and finance

The same report highlighted a staggering drop in employment hours at the height of the lockdown, including a 40% overall reduction in working hours from March to May 2020 across four cohorts aged 19, 30, 50 and 62. The biggest drop was among the youngest workers.

This briefing also put a spotlight on the unequal financial effects of the UK’s lockdown. The Figure below (Figure 2 from the briefing) shows that those in each generation who reported that they were already struggling financially before the COVID-19 outbreak were the most likely to report becoming worse off due to lockdown (Figure 2a). Those who reported already being comfortably off were the most likely to report having become better off (Figure 2b).

Figure 2: Worse or better off, by prior financial position

2a: Worse off

2b: Better off

Source: Finances and employment during lockdown – Initial findings from the COVID-19 Survey in Five National Longitudinal Studies by Bożena Wielgoszewska, Francis Green and Alissa Goodman

Mental health

Another important theme of our work is in mental health. Our briefing on mental health during the lockdown highlights the large mental health differences across generations, with young people – especially women aged 19 and 30 – at the greatest risk of depression, anxiety, loneliness and low life satisfaction.

Figure 1: Prevalence of depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, loneliness and low life satisfaction in May 2020 in the four cohorts

Source: Mental health during lockdown: evidence from four generations – Initial findings from the COVID-19 Survey in Five National Longitudinal Studies by Morag Henderson, Emla Fitzsimons, George Ploubidis, Marcus Richards and Praveetha Patalay

Looking at change is a key benefit of a longitudinal study. We found that young women (aged 30) showed the biggest increase in mental health problems since they were previously assessed some years before compared to middle-aged (aged 50) and older adults (aged 62). While this change in mental health will reflect change that may naturally occur at this stage of life, as well as change attributable to the pandemic, this finding chimes with other studies which have also shown that young women have experienced the largest increase in mental health problems due to COVID-19.

A series of further briefings will be available soon, among others looking at changes to living arrangements, conflict, and social support, the prevalence of COVID-19 and related symptoms, trust in government, and experiences of the pandemic expressed in the words of the study members themselves.

Future COVID-19 surveys

We’re delighted to have received additional funding from ESRC through the special UKRI COVID-19 funding call to carry out two more surveys with members of all five studies, in September 2020 and January 2021. The new grant will also support a programme of research examining how the pandemic has increased already deep-seated economic and health inequalities, using the new COVID-19 survey data alongside the longitudinal information collected from the study participants over many decades.

The two follow-up COVID-19 surveys will cover topics from the first survey, in order to track changes across people’s lives as the pandemic progresses. They will also explore new topics – including interruptions to health care, and the schooling experiences of study members’ children – which will be of great interest to policymakers in the coming months, as the NHS prepares for the winter, and teachers help pupils catch up on six months of lost learning.

Further information:

This blog post is part of CLOSER’s COVID-19: Perspectives blog series. Find out more and write for us.