Under the new plans, the ONS will be able to give estimates of infection rates at local authority level, meaning cities such as London or Manchester need never be fully locked down again.
“I certainly think that in cities that will be possible – Manchester or London, which is a region in its own right,” said Katherine Kent, the co-lead for Covid-19 Infection Survey analysis at the ONS.
“It’s definitely our ambition. We will be increasing our sample size at local authority level – so for example in Manchester at the moment that would cover areas such as Oldham or the City of Manchester or Trafford.
“With a larger sample, we will be quicker to react to potential small changes. Before, we would have to be cautious to say if something has gone up and gone down, and will have much more certainty around that.”
Scaling up the project will cost £750 million over two years, but the Government believes that is a worthwhile investment in order to prevent the devastating economic impact of large-scale lockdowns.
“It isn’t going to be cheap, and obviously the Government has to consider the cost of the survey, but with the costs for the damage to the economy and the potential loss of lives they’ve clearly made the decision that this was the right investment,” added Ms Kent.
Once expanded, the infection survey will be the country’s largest study tracking Covid-19 in the general population and will now include Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The ONS will prioritise ramping up in the north-west of England (see video below) and London in the light of recent upticks in infection rates. Letters have already been sent out to tens of thousands of homes inviting new participants to take part in the survey. Anyone who receives a letter asking them to participate is encouraged to do so.