PART 2: Understanding the pandemic – looking at early research findings from COVID-19 data

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This is the second blog in a 3-part series by CLOSER Partner Study, Understanding Society, exploring their response and survey results to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chris Coates, Research Impact and Project Manager at Understanding Society, takes a look at the implications from early research findings from their COVID-19 survey launched last year.

Many of us will not look back on 2020 fondly, but few of us are likely to forget it. We know that, at some stage, there will be an official reckoning with what happened, in the form of a public inquiry, but in the meantime, a remarkable body of evidence is accumulating about the effects of COVID-19.

Understanding Society launched a COVID-19 survey in April 2020 with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and The Health Foundation. We’ve already seen a wealth of research on the pandemic’s impact on the economy, health and caring, home schooling, family relationships, and on ethnic differences in the effects. This blog looks at some of the early research findings from our COVID-19 data.

Economic effects

The efforts to contain the disease have inevitably had effects on the economy, and many researchers have used data from Understanding Society to examine these. Matteo Richiardi, Director of the new Centre for Microsimulation and Policy Analysis at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) wrote in September 2020 that the end of the furlough scheme could cost the UK economy 1.8 million jobs. He urged the Chancellor instead to consider tapering out the scheme and investing in economic recovery at a time of low interest rates. It follows a study in May 2020, also from ISER, suggesting that one in four jobs could be at risk, with losses of up to 80% in the accommodation and food sector.

Analysis using data from the Understanding Society COVID-19 survey by LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance compared the crisis with previous recessions. Their work shows a 15% fall in employment between February and June 2020 – the UK economy’s “biggest unemployment shock since at least the 1980s recession” – contradicting the stable official figures. In August 2020, when the analysis was published, hours worked were only at 80% of the level from February 2020, and the authors – Brian Bell, Mihai Codreanu and Stephen Machin – said: “the picture is bleak. Despite their different impacts across industries, the COVID-19 crisis and the three most recent UK recessions share the common feature of a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable (the poorest, the youngest, the least educated, and ethnic minorities).”

The mental health impact of the pandemic

The lockdowns and social restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 have significantly impacted our physical and mental health. Information from Understanding Society allows researchers to see the effect of the pandemic on mental wellbeing in the UK, across different age groups and different socioeconomic circumstances.

According to a paper in The Lancet Psychiatry in July, 18.9% of the UK population had clinically significant signs of mental distress before COVID-19, and this had climbed to 27.3% a month into the first lockdown. The greatest increases were found in 18–34-year-olds, women, and people living with young children.

Rates of mental distress were higher in people who were unemployed or economically inactive before the first lockdown, but the increase in mental distress was greater among those who were employed before the pandemic. Some in this group will have lost their jobs, seen their income fall, been furloughed, or had to work in ways that exposed them to infection.

The researchers suggest that as the economic consequences develop, “it is reasonable to expect not only sustained distress and clinically significant deterioration in mental health for some people, but emergence of well described long-term effects of economic recession on mental health, including increasing suicide rates and hospital admissions for mental illness.” To tackle these challenges, government policy will need to focus access to outside and inside space, household crowding, lack of schooling and childcare, food insecurity, domestic violence, and addiction.

A study in Public Health in September 2020 found that the same groups were at risk of loneliness during the pandemic as before, but some – such as people aged 18–30, people on low income and people living alone – were at heightened risk. Being a student also became a higher risk factor during lockdown.

Home schooling

One of the most obvious social changes brought by lockdown was schools closing. The National Foundation for Educational Research found that almost all pupils received some remote learning, but provision was uneven: almost half of exam-year pupils in Years 11 and 13 did not have work provided by their school.

It’s not surprising, then, that researchers at the University of Southampton found that moving from face-to-face schooling to home and online learning harmed children’s education – and the educational loss is “more pronounced for children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds”.

Overhead view of students studying

Image credits to Anthony Cullen.

Family life

Some of us were lucky in lockdown. We kept working, but stopped commuting, and saw more of our families. A policy briefing from the ESRC Centre for Population Change says the vast majority of parents said their relationships with their children had stayed the same (70%) or improved (26%) during lockdown. Only 4% said their relationships had got worse.

However, not everyone’s home life is like that, of course, and analysis by Sonia Balhotra at ISER suggests that lockdowns saw a surge in domestic violence. She said: “Policies that compensate individuals for the loss in earnings or employment may indirectly act to lower domestic violence, but going forward, more fundamental research is needed to understand how best to design preventive measures.”

Differences by ethnicity

Research has also shown that the pandemic is exacerbating already entrenched socio-economic inequalities which affect people from ethnic minorities, and migrants. Yang Hu at Lancaster University found that Black, Asian and minority ethnic migrants in the UK are more likely to experience job loss during lockdown than UK-born white British people. He suggests that governments and policymakers need to put racial justice at the centre of their response to the pandemic.

Looking at a more specific economic effect on Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, the IPPR has found that they are now at greater risk of problem debt. These communities were already more likely to say they were ‘struggling financially’ even before the pandemic, and the crisis has had a disproportionate impact on them. As the IPPR says, “Debt is not just a financial challenge; it also has serious impacts on health and wellbeing, and its long-term effects can be devastating.”

Looking ahead

This is a whistle-stop tour of just some of the research findings from our COVID-19 survey and the main Understanding Society survey data collected in 2020. There is more information about the survey on our website, and Wave 5 became available to download in December 2020 (including the results from a children’s questionnaire, and 2019 pre-pandemic data from the main survey). We have two final COVID-19 surveys going out in January and March 2021, giving us a whole year of data on people’s experiences.

Naturally, we’d all like to get back to normal, but Understanding Society has helped us to understand what’s happened during the pandemic and look ahead to how COVID-19 might continue to impact on our lives.

Further information

This is the second blog in a 3-part blog series by CLOSER partner study, Understanding Society, exploring their response and survey results to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To read more blogs in the COVID-19: Perspectives series, visit our COVID-19 Longitudinal Research Hub.


Chris Coates, Research Impact and Project Manager at Understanding Society. Follow Understanding Society on Twitter: @usociety

Suggested citation:

Coates, C. (2021). ‘PART 2: Understanding the pandemic – looking at early research findings from COVID-19 data’. CLOSER. 11 February 2021. Available at: https://www.closer.ac.uk/news-opinion/blog/part-2-understanding-the-pandemic-looking-at-early/