Why ONS should restart publishing local Covid infection rates as soon as it can

The ONS’ decision to suspend local-level Covid infection figures is the latest in a drip-drip-drip of changes this year which have combined to make open data on the pandemic poorer, writes Claire Wilde, National World’s group editor of data and investigations.

We are currently in the midst of one of the biggest Covid waves of the pandemic, with an estimated 3.8 million people infected and rising numbers in hospital.

But which towns and cities are hardest hit, or have the fastest rising infection levels? For the first time in years, we can’t tell you.

Each week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) tests a sample of the population totalling tens of thousands of people and uses it to model infection levels for all four nations as well as every local area of the UK.

It had become the only remaining way to reliably gauge Covid levels across different towns and cities, after the devolved governments each scrapped their free testing programmes earlier this year.

It meant that people had precise information about the level of infection in their local community, allowing them to decide, for instance, whether to wear a mask if seeing an elderly relative.

But last Friday, the ONS announced it was ‘pausing’ its release of infection estimates for local areas. While it says this move is temporary, it has not been able to say when the information will start up again.

And a blog post by the ONS effectively warns that with its sample size due to shrink, it may not be able to put out local-level figures as often in future.

It is the latest in a drip-drip-drip of changes this year which have combined to make the open data on the pandemic less detailed, less frequent, less useful.

Open data saved lives during the coronavirus pandemic. The charts we all grew used to seeing, the talk of ‘flattening the curve’, the nation’s sudden interest in R numbers - it all helped the public and the policymakers to comprehend what was happening and make well-informed decisions as a result.

Health and statistical bodies did a magnificent job, building data dashboards at breakneck speed. The public could see the latest picture at a glance and journalists like me could download the underlying figures to look further into what they were telling us.

Since then, some data releases by the various governments and official bodies have been stopped completely, much has been changed from daily to weekly and some, such as test results, continues but with numbers so low that they can’t really be relied upon.

We can now no longer say, for example, which Covid variants are circulating in a certain council area as far fewer samples are being sequenced, and have to instead rely on regional estimates.

We can no longer report how many UK deaths there have been within 28 days of a positive Covid test, after Northern Ireland stopped releasing these figures.

We can now no longer reliably say which neighbourhoods in your city have the highest number of cases, which might in previous months have helped you decide whether to go to that big event.

It is inevitable that as Covid moves from a pandemic to endemic, we must find more affordable ways to monitor the virus. But if we lose too much information, we run the risk of flying blind.