Safety in Numbers: Amateur Epidemiology - Data has played a vital role in helping people assess the risk of catching coronavirus, evaluating the performance of governments and projecting as to what might happen next. But with so many people turning to numbers for support, what do the figures actually tell us?

Head of Research Chris Jarvis shares his views on the role of data during a pandemic

Safety in Numbers: Amateur Epidemiology

Data has played a vital role in helping people assess the risk of catching coronavirus, evaluating the performance of governments and projecting as to what might happen next. But with so many people turning to numbers for support, what do the figures actually tell us?

As of Sunday 26th July, 44 per cent of the UK adult population said they were either “somewhat” or “very” scared of contracting Covid-19[i] – one of the highest rates in Europe and a figure that has not greatly deviated in almost two months.

A question many people have been asking themselves has been: is the reward of returning to normality worth the risk?

As with most things, there is an element of risk/reward analysis in the decision-making process, no matter how subconscious.  Usually, these decisions cover choices such as finishing off work late on a Friday or having it hang over your head for the weekend, but now many people are fretting over whether a mercy dash to the local shops is worth the risk of catching Covid.

Research from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine[ii] suggests only 14 per cent of symptomatic cases have been reported in the UK, which would boost the number of cases since the start of July from just over 18,000 to more than 130,000. Assuming only new cases from the past two weeks are infections and excluding those without symptoms, this would put the number of potentially infectious cases at 68,000 – around one in 996 people in the UK.

If you were given odds of 1,000/1 of meeting someone with coronavirus, you’d probably risk it in order to do your weekly shop. Nearly 46,000 people dying is a tragedy but ranked against the official number of confirmed cases of 301,000 and the projected total of 2,153,000 based on the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s calculations the numbers tell us 3.2 per cent of the population has been infected, with a mortality rate of 2.2%.

So, what does this all mean in practice?

London, home to approximately one in seven people in the UK, was always likely to feel the brunt of a virus that thrives in high population, high density areas. Conversely, in London the two most densely-populated boroughs, Tower Hamlets (16,583.5 per km2) and Islington (16,344.7 per km2) have the two lowest infection rates in the capital, with Islington recording only 22.8 cases per 10,000 people0. Neighbouring Camden, which has the seventh-highest population density in the capital, has recorded only 27.4 cases per 10,000 people  Brent is London’s Covid epicentre with nearly twice as many cases per 10,000 at 50.8[iii].

However, the statistics are only an indicator and living in Brent while taking necessary precautions will be infinitely safer than living in Islington and having a laissez-faire attitude to disease control. Research will play a vital role in future understanding of the virus, both on a medical level and also in enabling companies to better understand how their client base is responding to the unique situation we find ourselves in. As Head of Research at Citigate Dewe Rogerson, I have seen just how significant research has been in the on-going coverage and wider narrative around Covid-19. It has underscored the strength of research in the media and its continued use by all parties in defining a story.

Ultimately, it is everyone’s responsibility to be sensible to help prevent a second wave as seen in continental Europe. Statistics may sometimes be scary they are playing a vital role in our battle against the virus.


[i] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/international/articles-reports/2020/03/17/fear-catching-covid-19

[ii] https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24632873-000-how-many-of-us-are-likely-to-have-caught-the-coronavirus-so-far/

[iii] https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/coronavirus–covid-19–cases

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