How the ONS is harnessing data to prepare for future pandemics

Good data played a key part in informing the UK response to the coronavirus pandemic. But what lessons can be learned and how can we best prepare not only ourselves, but the rest of the world if, and when, another pandemic hits?

By Emma Rourke

03 Oct 2023


Data is at the heart of decision making. This was never more apparent than during the pandemic, where ONS mortality statistics and the UK wide Covid-19 Infection Survey (CIS) provided a vital source of regular and timely data. The ONS worked collaboratively across government in urgent circumstances to present clear information, supporting public understanding and policy making.  

CIS helped inform the response to the spread of the virus and provided timely information on infections, antibodies, and symptoms. As a result, it was established as the "gold standard" for understanding the level of positivity in the community across the UK.  

We also stood up the Schools’ Infections Survey, and our innovative use of linked data in analysis helped inform who was most likely at risk from the virus and which communities were most likely to be affected.  

If, and when, there is another pandemic, being prepared is the best way to ensure the right response is taken. 

That is why we are developing a Pandemic Preparedness Toolkit. 

This 5-year project will be the first of its kind to provide a resource working with other National Statistics Offices (NSOs) particularly in low and middle-income countries to effectively monitor their health data. Once live, the PPT will be a collection of resources to provide practical guidance, statistical methods, knowledge products, case studies, and training materials. All these aspects will help NSOs conducting infectious disease surveillance, or enable them to provide strong support to the public health institutions who undertake the surveillance. 

Our expertise in health statistics, survey design and data governance will be crucial to its development, but it is also an opportunity to understand and be informed by the experiences and response in other countries. 

"The Pandemic Preparedness Toolkit will be a collection of resources to provide practical guidance, statistical methods, knowledge products, case studies, and training materials"

As a result of the pandemic, there is now a clear demand to increase health statistics globally. A World Bank/Paris21/UN Statistics Division survey of NSOs conducted in 2021 revealed that 75% of countries who are eligible for Overseas Development Aid considered that developing health statistics is a high priority for them. Putting in place provisions to monitor a future pandemic is an important part of developing statistical capability. None of us want to be unprepared in our response if another pandemic hits.  

The ONS is well versed in working with international partners. We have participated in successful joint initiatives recently, including Supporting global goals in Ghana, supporting development of civil registration processes in Rwanda, and working with Namibia on their census processing.  

Our main aim with the toolkit is to collaborate with lower and middle-income countries to build capability in tracking endemic conditions, novel emerging pathogens and escalating infectious diseases. In supporting international management of infectious diseases, we contribute to the protection of our own citizens.  

This will greatly facilitate in-country capability to inform and guide policymakers making evidence-based decisions, and strengthen countries’ ability to stand up a rapid response. 

It is central to our plans that we work closely with other NSOs internationally, so we can understand their needs, and together come up with solutions that work best for them. To this end, we will partner with three countries to co-create the toolkit. We will also collaborate with the UN, WHO, academics and other non-governmental organisations who can amplify the learning and ensure that the Toolkit reaches its full potential. 

The final toolkit will be freely accessible, usable and sustainable, meaning all interested parties will be able to benefit from its resources. Sharing combined expertise in health statistics, survey design, data governance, and statistical leadership, this toolkit will strengthen NSO capacities to support and link to their national health surveillance efforts, making an important contribution to the pandemic preparedness in each country and collectively. 

This autumn we will be holding virtual events to not only launch the project but to identify lessons learned and common themes for setting up and running health surveillance.  

We are looking forward to working together with our international partners and building stronger connections around the world. Funded by Wellcome, this toolkit will ultimately provide resources and information to assist other countries prepare to monitor a future pandemic effectively.  

Emma Rourke is deputy national statistician

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