Using local-level data to investigate Covid-19 inequalities in England

Categories: Blogs, Impact, ADR England, Office for National Statistics, Health & wellbeing, Housing & communities, Inequality & social inclusion

Written by Simon Leech, Dr Mark Green, Dr Jacob Macdonald, Dr Maurizio Gibin 7 May 2021

The Local Data Spaces (LDS) programme is a collaboration between the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and ADR UK. This initiative emphasises the ‘local’ aspects of data availability, research and measuring the impacts of Covid-19 locally and comparably for areas across England.

‘Local Data Spaces’ are secure, bespoke virtual research areas created within the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Secure Research Service (SRS), providing the infrastructure support to access crucial data and respond to local needs arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. These spaces enable local authorities – and regional groupings of local authorities – across England to access the data needed to inform their Covid response and understand its wider impacts. 

It was recognised that many local authorities would benefit from analytical and research support to address Covid-19. As part of a six-month pilot project, we were therefore funded by ADR UK to provide analysis support to a number of local authorities to enable them to leverage insights from core national and administrative datasets held in the secure environment. The research was co-designed with local authorities and stakeholders, to ensure the analyses were relevant at the local level. 

We investigated small-area socio-demographic inequalities in Covid-19 transmission and testing uptake, and the economic impacts of Covid-19 tracking economic vulnerability, the retail and accommodations sector and local mobility. The analysis is scaled and extended to all Local Authority Districts across England. 

What we did 

This work provided novel and innovative support and insight in response to the needs of local authorities for detailed, locally-focused research. Through the LDS project, local authorities and stakeholders had two possible methods of engagement: 1) direct access to the ONS SRS and catalogue of granular Covid-19 and economic datasets for their own analysts; 2) for those with potentially less internal analytical capacity or current resources, access to the expertise of ADR UK funded researchers to undertake analysis for them. 

Through a series of 25 Local Authority Engagement Meetings alongside the JBC, the most pressing research questions for local authorities were uncovered. Two main areas of research requirement were highlighted: economic impacts of Covid-19, including profiling at risk employment sectors, and the social economies of tourism, hospitality and retail; alongside occupational and demographic inequalities of Covid-19 transmission. 

The catalogue of available datasets to researchers through the SRS infrastructure is vast and continually updating – particularly with the relevant health and Covid-19 datasets. Principally, health data from the Test and Trace programme and the Covid-19 Infection Survey, and non-health data such as The Business Structure Dataset (BSD) and Business Registry and Employment Survey (BRES), were used to create novel insights directed for local areas. In addition, a series of openly available datasets such as the HM Land Registry and Google Mobility Data, and Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) datasets such as the CDRC Business Census and Access to Healthy Assets and Hazards (AHAH), were used to supplement ONS SRS datasets. A series of nine reports were generated for each of England’s local authorities using the data, covering a range of socio-demographic inequalities, at-risk employment sectors, and temporal dynamics of local mobility. 

While analyses were completed with specific local authorities as partners, it was designed to be extended to all other local authorities so they can benefit from the insights generated where relevant. This study is the first of its kind to use the ONS SRS to extend analysis for a multitude of Covid-19-focused reports across all local authorities in England. These analyses provide high quality, highly-granular analyses to Local Authorities that can help to inform local decision making in support of individual policy needs.

Figure: an example of an output from the impact analysis reports, allowing users to compare positive Covid-19 rates by work sector for England (green) and their area (purple).

Why it matters

Health is intrinsically linked to the conditions people live, work and age in, and there exist marked differences in health due to deprivation [1]. Covid-19 has exposed and intensified existing societal inequalities [1]. For example, Covid-19 mortality rates for Black African or Black Caribbean ethnicities have been over two times higher than those of White ethnicity [2]. Ethnic differences exist in access to green space, occupation, deprivation and residence in multi-generational households, all of which compound Covid-19 risk [2]. Further, the health of the population is linked to overall economic health [1]: the pandemic has seen a decline in tourism by 76% [3] and in high street footfall by 80% [4]. 

These issues can further have compounding impacts in certain local areas. Local policy and the analyses it is based upon must necessarily be made from the most local and robust data available. National and regional aggregates can risk masking variations in these important socio-demographic and economic impacts at the local level.

By uncovering differences through the stratification of population demographics - sex, age, ethnicity and deprivation - inequalities can be laid bare and patterns and trends in Covid-19 transmission and outcomes highlighted. Analyses of the economic impacts of Covid-19, particularly on retail, mobility and high streets, can enable insight into which areas are most at risk and allow targeted policy intervention towards local-area level rejuvenation. This work will help inform local decision making, including targeted policy intervention, and will shift the emphasis from national or regional approaches to a more local focus.

What next? 

It is important that the legacy of this work continue beyond the six-month pilot study timeline. As such, all R scripts for data cleaning and replicating analyses have been made available both on GitHub, as well as for any local authorities, stakeholders or SRS-accredited researchers within the ONS SRS. In providing these coding products for reproducible research, we alleviate the need for analysts to complete time-consuming data cleaning processes, allowing local authorities to more rapidly address their local needs. 

Alongside this, we hope to empower those authorities with lower analytical capability by documenting and providing guidelines for reproducibility for the code products available– within the limits of appropriate data disclosure rules. Finally, the series of nine reports generated for each local authority are available on the CDRC website . 

Local authorities and local research stakeholders have varying analytical capacity and capability, stretched thin during the Covid-19 pandemic. By generating a series of reports for each local authority in England, we help fill these analytical gaps and support local level Covid-19 responses. We showcased the demand for working alongside local authorities to co-produce research and the scalability of this work across all of England, leveraging the power and support of the ONS SRS infrastructure and the data held securely within it. 


  1. Michael Marmot, Jessica Allen, Peter Goldblatt, Eleanor Herd, Joana Morrison (2020). Build Back Fairer: The COVID-19 Marmot Review. The Pandemic, Socioeconomic and Health Inequalities in England. London: Institute of Health Equity.
  2. Office for National Statistics (2020). Why have Black and South Asian people been hit hardest by Covid-19? Office for National Statistics.
  3. Visit Britain (2020). 2021 tourism forecast. VisitBritain
  4. BBC (2020). Coronavirus: High Streets see 'fastest ever' footfall dropBBC News.



For more information on Local Authority Engagement and access to the shareable R Scripts within the Office for National Statistics Secure Research Service, please contact Victoria Chenery:

For more information on the ADR UK funded researchers and their analyses, please contact Mark Green:

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