In May 2020, I highlighted the need to harness the power of longitudinal population studies to help understand the immediate and long-term impacts of the pandemic on individuals, families and communities and called for the creation of a new national birth cohort study to ensure that valuable data from a generation born during a global pandemic is not lost.
As the UK moves into a new phase of its COVID-19 response I explore what happened over the past year and how our work ensured that longitudinal data and research will remain at the forefront of the country’s response to the pandemic, now and in the future.
Over the past 12 months something quite remarkable has happened – longitudinal studies that would normally carry out predominantly face to face data collection rapidly moved their operations online and ramped up the frequency of their surveys from years to months to capture the experience of their study participants and how the pandemic was affecting their lives. This phenomenal effort has ensured that data and evidence from longitudinal population studies have been at the forefront of the UK’s response to COVID-19.
Findings from these studies have helped to understand the immediate health, social, economic and behavioural impacts of the pandemic at both a national and regional level, and across all generations and ages. Rich participant data has enabled the exploration of how people at different life stages are being affected by COVID-19 and how prior life experiences shape resilience or vulnerability to its effects. Valuable insights into how the pandemic has affected people’s physical and mental health, their employment and finances and their children’s education are shining a light on those who have been impacted the most and who needs more support.
Mobilising data and generating impact
CLOSER, the home of longitudinal research, brings together these national scientific assets to maximise their visibility, use and impact. Our world-class longitudinal population studies comprise of both national and regional studies from across the UK. They include the British Birth Cohort Studies, ONS Longitudinal Study, English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, Born in Bradford, Southampton Women’s Survey, Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, Generation Scotland, and Understanding Society – the UK Household Longitudinal Study.
Created in May 2020, CLOSER’s COVID-19 Taskforce mobilised data, research and policy specialists to capture and showcase the response of our studies, present a coherent narrative to policy and decision makers, develop resources for researchers, and make COVID-19 data more discoverable. Since its launch, CLOSER’s bespoke online platform, the COVID-19 Longitudinal Research Hub, has established itself as a trusted source of information and insights across the research and policy landscapes. Our research tracker contains all the briefing notes, reports, academic publications and articles in one place and CLOSER Discovery – the UK’s most detailed search engine for longitudinal data – includes COVID-19 data from seven longitudinal studies in unprecedented detail.
A new approach for 2021: The National Core Studies
CLOSER’s message to policy and decision makers consistently emphasised that as we moved from the initial reaction to the pandemic into a new stage of the UK’s response to COVID-19, it was vital that we did not lose sight of the potential long-term impacts of the pandemic on individuals and families. This required new investment on a scale not seen since the UK Millennium Cohort Study, created as part of the Government’s plans to mark the turn of the 21st century.
In October 2020, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, announced the commencement of the National Core Studies as part of the UK’s response to the next phase of the pandemic. Focussing on areas where the UK must increase research scale to respond to strategic, policy and operational needs and maintain resilience against COVID-19, this new approach comprised of six programmes: Epidemiology and Surveillance; Clinical Trials Infrastructure; Transmission and Environment; Immunity; Data and Connectivity; and Longitudinal Health and Wellbeing.
With a £9.6 million award from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the Longitudinal Health and Wellbeing study aims to better understand and address the longer-term effects of COVID-19 on physical and mental health. Researchers will analyse data from more than 60,000 people drawn from a combination of national anonymised primary care electronic health records and longitudinal studies to help define what long COVID is and improve diagnosis.
Generation C: a new cohort of longitudinal studies is born
And there’s more. Our calls for the need for new longitudinal studies are now being realised. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), a £3m two-year feasibility study will aim to lay the groundwork for a full-scale Early Life Cohort Study that will follow participants throughout their lives. The study aims to recruit several thousand new babies, born across the UK between August-October 2021, and capture information about their economic and social environments, and their health, wellbeing and development during their first year of life. The feasibility study will be evaluated in early 2023, and if judged to be successful, commissioning of a new, larger main study is anticipated later that year.
But that’s not all. With £4.6m provided by UKRI/ESRC for the first two years, the COVID Social Mobility and Opportunity Study (COSMO) is a major new longitudinal cohort study which will examine the short, medium and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on educational inequality and social mobility. The study will take a representative sample of 12,000 young people in Year 11 across England, ask them about their experiences of the pandemic, as well as their future hopes and plans, and then follow them through the rest of their education and into the workplace.
And finally, after 20 long years, a new longitudinal birth cohort study launches onto the scene to provide vital evidence about the experiences of young children and their families growing up in the 2020s. Commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE), The Children of the 2020s will follow the lives of 8,500 babies born in England in April, May, and June 2021 from 9 months of age until their 5th birthday. The study will examine a range of factors that affect children’s development and education in the early years, including the home environment, nurseries and preschool, the neighbourhood, early years services and the broader social and economic circumstances of the family, providing vital evidence into how best to support children in their early years.
Was COVID-19 a defining moment for longitudinal research?
A unique aspect of longitudinal population studies and key advantage compared to other studies is their ability to study change within individuals as a result of the pandemic. This is because they also have pre-pandemic measures of health and behaviours on the same people, with many having followed them throughout their lives. With this new investment these remarkable studies, unparalleled elsewhere in the world, will continue to follow the lives of their participants for many years to come, making it possible to not only track short-term impacts of the pandemic, but also the long-term change and impacts – over years and decades – on the lives of different generations. It was a defining moment; the longitudinal research community rose to the challenge, and the “jewel in the crown” of UK science and research will continue to shine brightly.