How data is helping the third sector evidence the impact of COVID-19

 How data is helping the third sector evidence the impact of COVID-19

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

by Catherine McDonald, Policy and Partnerships Manager at Understanding Society

As the UK begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to look back at where we were when the crisis hit and compare it to where we are now is vital if we are to fully understand its impact. 

Charities now need to be able to assess the effects of the crisis on their user groups. Many effects have been immediate, but others will take longer to materialise. This blog is about how some charities have already used longitudinal data to start to understand and track what COVID-19 has changed in the lives of their service users.   

The power of longitudinal data – data that is repeatedly collected from the same sample over time – lies in its ability to identify the causes and consequences of change. 

Understanding Society is the UK’s largest longitudinal household panel study. Every year, we survey every member of thousands of the same households across all four countries of the UK. We ask our participants questions on education, employment, their family and household, their health and wellbeing, their income and expenditure and their civic participation. You can view our long-term content plan to discover what we ask and when we ask it. In essence, because our sample is representative, we are capturing life in the UK in the 21st century. When interrogated, our data will tell the whole story – you will have the before, the during and the after.  

In early 2020, as it was becoming increasingly apparent that we were rushing headlong towards a global pandemic, the team at Understanding Society were committed to channelling their world-leading survey methodology experience and infrastructure to record the UK’s experience of this unprecedented event. 

Every one of our participants who had taken part in at least one of the last two waves of data collection was contacted and asked if they would be willing to take part in a separate web or phone interview about how they were being affected by COVID-19. This was to be our COVID-19 Study. Over a third of them agreed and were subsequently questioned on different aspects including symptoms, testing, health service use, employment, home schooling, income, finances, caring, loneliness, exercise and alcohol consumption. 

The interviews were conducted monthly from April to July 2020, and bi-monthly from September to March 2021. Eight waves of data are now available from this Study, with a closing survey and the results of antibody testing to come. Crucially, researchers and analysts can link the data from the COVID-19 Study to answers those same respondents have given in previous, and of course future, waves of the main Understanding Society survey. You can access the COVID-19 Study’s content plan to view the range and frequency of questions asked.  

So, if you’re a charity, what can the data tell you and how can its power be harnessed for policy and action? 

One of the questions in our COVID-19 Study, reads “Thinking about last week, were you or others in your household unable to eat healthy and nutritious food?” Analysis conducted by Age UK found that 72.39% of people aged 60 and over responded “No”. The analysis showed that around 3.7 million people aged 60 and over in the UK, and/or members of their household, had not been able to eat healthy and nutritious food in the week prior to being asked. Together with data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing COVID-19 Sub-Study, Age UK was able to evidence their concerns around how tough life had been for many older people during the pandemic. They have used this analysis to raise awareness of this issue, which could potentially otherwise have remained hidden, and have asked people to look out for signs of malnutrition in the older people in their lives.  

Understanding Society’s own briefing note, Social cohesion – what has changed since the outbreak?, questions whether the pandemic has made us and our communities closer or whether it has driven us further apart. Analysis of the data showed that there had been a decline in social cohesion across all measures, both in behaviour and attitudes. It also showed that people from South Asian, Black and ‘Other’ ethnic minority backgrounds experienced larger declines in social cohesion when compared to those from a White British and Irish background. Lower levels of perceived social cohesion were also reported by those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods compared to those in the least deprived – proof of a widening of this particular type of inequality.  

Research conducted by NatCen, Britain’s largest independent social research agency, used Understanding Society COVID-19 data to show that the mental health of those who were disadvantaged and financially vulnerable had suffered the most during the pandemic. It found that the mental health of people who were newly reliant on benefits and financial support during COVID-19 had worsened more than that of the wider population. Using our data, NatCen identified six different financial experiences of the pandemic. These were:   

  • Undisrupted – people whose finances were largely unaffected
  • Beneficiaries – people whose finances improved
  • Self-supporters – those who managed to cope with loss of income with little change to their lives
  • Copers – people who used their savings to cover shortfalls
  • Help-seekers – those who sought help from self-employment support schemes and Universal Credit 
  • Multi-strugglers – people who faced multiple financial struggles who took advantage of many different types of financial support

The research found that mental distress increased in all these groups, but the biggest increases were felt among the ‘help-seekers’. At the beginning of 2021, 42% of ‘help-seekers’ reported poor mental health, an increase from 29% before the crisis. ‘Multi-strugglers’ faced the highest levels of mental distress both before and during the crisis, and people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were twice as likely as White people to be ‘help-seekers’. This evidence prompted Dr Neil Smith, Head of Analysis at the National Centre for Social Research, to state that the “mental health of people relying on employment and benefits support during the crisis should not be ignored”. 

But of course, it isn’t just our COVID-19 data that can provide powerful evidence for charities. Third sector organisations have been using data from Understanding Society for a number of years. MIND used seven years’ worth of data from Understanding Society to demonstrate the connection between social housing and mental health. When compiling The Good Childhood Report 2020, The Children’s Society used our Youth Questionnaire to evidence how young people felt about their life as a whole. And the Young Women’s Trust worked with Understanding Society to look at why economic inactivity is disproportionately high amongst young women.  

Understanding Society’s uniqueness lies in the data we capture. But behind every fragment of that data is a real life story, unfolding in real time. Our data has the potential to tell thousands of stories, and to detail layer upon layer of circumstances and experiences. Of health, child poverty, income and deprivation, loneliness, unemployment and more. And when that data gets into the hands of those than can harness it, it provides evidence for debate and, ultimately, change. 

Visit our website to find out more about Understanding Society, how you can use our data and the team that can help. You can also follow us on Twitter @usociety and on LinkedIn by searching Understanding Society. We look forward to hearing from you.


M Borkowska and J Laurence (2020) Understanding Society COVID-19 Survey Briefing Note: Social cohesion – what has changed during the coronavirus outbreak?. Understanding Society Working Paper No 16/2020, ISER, University of Essex.

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