Why we need longitudinal research to address the impacts of COVID-19
By Rob Davies, Head of the CLOSER COVID-19 Taskforce
It is clear that the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for individuals, families and society will be deep and long-lasting. However, we still don’t fully understand the impact of the virus, nationally or regionally, or how it will entrench existing challenges such as inequalities or mental health.
Data and evidence from longitudinal studies will be vital to the UK’s COVID-19 response. Harnessing the power of existing longitudinal studies will help to understand the immediate and long-term impacts on individuals, families and communities, providing valuable information for research and policy throughout and after the pandemic. Crucially, due to the unique nature of longitudinal studies, it will also be possible to track the longer-term consequences and impacts for years to come.
Rapid response with the future in mind
The response by the longitudinal research community to the COVID-19 pandemic has been rapid, extensive and impressive. New questionnaires have been launched for national and regional longitudinal study participants, some of which are already collecting and analysing COVID-related data. Insights from these surveys will help to understand the health, social, economic and behavioural impacts of the pandemic at both a national and regional level, how people at different life stages are being affected, and how prior life experiences shape resilience or vulnerability to its effects.
To capture and showcase the response by social and biomedical longitudinal studies, we have developed a new COVID-19 Longitudinal Research Hub to act as a ‘one-stop shop’ resource for researchers, parliamentarians and policy makers, now and in the future. The Hub contains details of new COVID-19 longitudinal surveys, data releases, research and evidence, blogs and opinion, how to register as an expert with Government and Parliament, and further useful resources. Over the coming weeks and months we will continue to develop and regularly update the Hub with new functionality and content.
The pandemic poses huge challenges, both to the UK and across the world. Some of those challenges must be addressed with immediacy, but others will need a more considered, long-term response. Whilst an immediate reaction to the pandemic by the research community is needed, it is also important to ensure that the data and information collected can be used in the months and years to come. That’s why it’s so important for continued, representative, longitudinal data with good-quality metadata to enable comparisons across different populations.
Two lost decades — what will be the fate of Generation Corona?
For many years other countries have looked on in envy at the UK’s longitudinal studies. Internationally renowned, these important investments have provided key insights into our society, allowing researchers and policymakers to explore patterns of change and the dynamics of individual behaviour, the link between earlier life circumstances and later outcomes, how different areas of our lives are linked, and how those relationships change over time.
It is 20 years since the UK Millennium Cohort Study began collecting its first data. Created as part of the Government’s plans to mark the millennium, it is the most recent of our national longitudinal birth cohort studies, following the lives of thousands of children born at the turn of the new century. This study, along with other UK longitudinal studies, have continued to prove their reputation as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of UK science and research. However, despite this enviable position, to this day a new, national birth cohort study has not yet been realised. This is a missed opportunity which urgently needs addressing.
“Now it is the Government’s responsibility to build the public health and governmental infrastructure — across the entirety of the United Kingdom — that will protect the country for decades to come.” OUR PLAN TO REBUILD: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy, 11 May 2020
In this era of dramatic political, technological, societal and economic change only longitudinal data can provide insights about the dynamics of individual behaviour and the influence of earlier events and circumstances on later life outcomes. The UK’s studies are valuable assets, part of the UK’s scientific infrastructure, and in a position to provide a unique perspective on the impacts of this pandemic on individuals, families and our society. A new, national birth cohort study should be considered as part of our critical future infrastructure as the government looks to build new, long-term foundations for the country. This requires the foresight to act now, before it’s too late, to ensure that vital data from another generation is not lost.
More about the Author
Rob Davies the Public Affairs Manager at CLOSER and Head of CLOSER COVID-19 Taskforce.