Part 1: Understanding the pandemic – surveying the population during lockdown

By Michaela Benzeval, Jon Burton, and Peter Lynn, Understanding Society
January 22, 2021

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

Professor Michaela Benzeval (Director), Dr Jon Burton (Associate Director, Surveys) and Professor Peter Lynn (Associate Director, Survey Methods) take a look at how Understanding Society – the UK’s biggest household panel survey – adapted their data collection methods in the face of national lockdown.

When face-to-face interviews are not an option, how did the UK’s biggest household panel survey of over 26,000 households respond?

Understanding Society is a household panel survey in the UK which interviews its participants annually. This can be face-to-face, on the phone or online. Prior to March 2020, around half of all the interviews were carried out face-to-face, amounting to around 1,150 interviews per month. Interviews take place throughout the year, so there is never a ‘quiet time’ for the survey.

Decision to suspend face-to-face interviewing

On 11th March 2020, when the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, our fieldwork agencies introduced a range of strict hygiene procedures for interviewers and our first move was to inform participants via our website and through any direct contact that face-to-face participants had with interviewers, either in pre-interview phone calls or the annual interview itself. Participants who had concerns, or were feeling ill themselves, were encouraged to contact us so we could reschedule interviews if necessary.

The very next day, on 12th March, new self-isolation measures were announced for those with symptoms of the virus. Seeing the lockdown policies being implemented across the world on the 15th March, the Understanding Society leadership team made the decision to suspend all face-to-face interviewing.

A message was added to the Understanding Society website to let participants know that they would have the opportunity to complete their interviews online or by telephone instead. In just a few days, Understanding Society had changed from being a 50% face-to-face survey, to being conducted exclusively online and over the phone.

The advantage of being a mixed-mode study

Understanding Society is a mixed mode survey, so we had a huge advantage when moving to online and telephone interviews – all of the scripts were ready to use in both telephone and online mode. Our fieldwork partners and interviewers were also very familiar with online and telephone interviews, so were able to quickly implement the new interviewing schedule.

The survey has a long fieldwork time which normally includes a web-only period, then a period for interviewing by telephone or face-to-face if the household hasn’t completed their interview in web mode. We interview throughout the year and the design of Understanding Society means that different ‘waves’ of the survey are in the field at the same time – fieldwork for each ‘wave’ takes 24 months to complete.

Letters were sent to all the participants who were still actively being contacted about their interviews to let them know about the suspension of face-to-face fieldwork and give them unique login details to complete online. Participants were told that if they were not able to complete online, an interviewer would telephone them.

Face-to-face interviewers who were working on Wave 12 of the Study already had the telephone version of the script on their laptops and, with ethical approval in place, were able to start telephone interviewing from their homes on the 18th March. The Wave 11 telephone script needed to be transmitted to the interviewers’ laptops before these could be used, which was done on the 20th March.

After around 3-4 weeks of telephone fieldwork there was a slight delay in fieldwork progress when the fieldwork agencies furloughed a number of their interviewers, and so work had to be re-allocated to those interviewers remaining actively working.

Questionnaire content

The coronavirus pandemic has huge implications for most people. Even if they were not affected directly by illness themselves, the lockdowns and restrictions are life changing circumstances which have impacted many aspects of people’s home and working lives. Realising that for many of our participants their responses to annual interview were likely to be very different this year, we added guidance at the start of the interview that “Due to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, we know that life has changed a lot for everyone in the country. When you are answering the survey, we would like you to answer according to your circumstances now, even if these are not normal.”

A new module was added to Waves 11 and 12, focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic, which included questions on health conditions and the experience of COVID-19 within the household. There were minor updates to the existing employment questions with new response options of being furloughed, or on temporary unpaid leave. There were some updates to the self-employment questions to reflect the possibility of receiving government assistance.

We also brought into the Wave 12 questionnaire a small set of rotating modules which were part of Wave 11 but were not initially included in Wave 12 on food bank use, loneliness, exercise, and nutrition, which we felt might be particularly relevant to understanding changes in life in the UK under lockdown.

Success rates

Has the rapid transition away from face-to-face interviewing worked? The evidence to date suggests that it’s generally been a successful move. Response rates for the General Population Sample and the former-British Household Panel Survey are around 5 percentage points lower than we would expect, and rates for the Ethnic Minority Boost and Immigrant and Ethnic Minority boosts around 10 percentage points lower.

In April 2020, the 30% of participants who would normally have been interviewed face-to-face were also issued web-first. In this group, 25% of Wave 11 and 38% of Wave 12 participants completed their survey online without us needing to follow up with them. This might not seem a huge number, but these rates surprised and pleased us, given that these participants wouldn’t have completed an interview in this way before. Feedback from participants suggest that many of those who can’t complete via the web are happy to have a telephone interview instead. However, there are a small proportion of households where we do not have a telephone number. In our summer Participant Update Report, we encouraged sample members to update their contact details with us and emphasised the value of the study at a time like this, which lead to an increase in participants getting in touch to update their details.

Starting a COVID-19 study

We have also begun – since April 2020 – a regular Understanding Society COVID-19 survey focusing more specifically on the rapid changes in people’s lives due to the pandemic. In this study, we invited all adults from our main sample to complete a short online survey. Adults in households where there are no regular internet users were invited to take part in a telephone survey in May 2020 and will be followed-up by telephone later. Additionally, we have also begun to include a survey for children aged 10-15 years, as well as ask parents about the experiences of younger children. This survey includes core content designed to track changes and variable content adapted for each wave as the coronavirus situation develops. To date, four waves of this study have been collected, with further waves planned in 2021.

As a whole, our participants have been very supportive of the move away from face-to-face interviews and have embraced the new COVID-19 survey.

Further information

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

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

Professor Michaela Benzeval is the Director of Understanding Society. Follow her on Twitter: @MBenzeval

Dr Jon Burton is the Associate Director of Surveys at Understanding Society. Follow him on Twitter: @jburton123

Professor Peter Lynn is the Associate Director of Survey Methods at Understanding Society. Follow him on Twitter: @ProfPeterLynn

Suggested citation:

Benzeval, M., Burton, J. & Lynn, P. (2021). ‘PART 1: Understanding the pandemic – surveying the population during lockdown’. CLOSER. 28 January 2021. Available at: