Working as a government statistician in the COVID-19 pandemic – Anouska Pandya
by Anouska Pandya, Assistant Statistician in Health and Social Care Analysis
The Scottish Government has launched an external recruitment campaign for B1 and B2 Assistant Statisticians. Applications close on 13 November 2023. An information session to find out more about the application and assessment process will be held on Monday 6 November 2023 from 12:30 to 14:00. You might be wondering what statisticians do on a day-to-day basis. This blog series offers some insight into the diversity of roles available in the statistics group.
In March 2020, the arrival of COVID-19 changed lives across Scotland. The impacts on health, livelihoods, and daily life were huge. The news of a COVID-19 vaccine felt like a light at the end of the tunnel for many of us, as a path out of lockdowns. But how would we make sure people in Scotland received their vaccine doses? And how would we be able to tell how many doses were given?
Thinking back to just over two years ago, the situation was very different. Vaccine supply was limited, but due to the highly transmissible nature of COVID-19, it became vital to get “doses in arms” as quickly as possible.
Early analysis by the team focussed on balancing vaccinating as many people as possible with the need to ensure enough vaccine supply for second doses. After receiving their first dose, people were to become eligible for a second once the dose interval set by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) was met. This was a classic circular maths problem – the more people you vaccinate now, the more you need second doses for in the future, and hence the more vaccine supply needs ring-fencing. This was complicated by frequent vaccine supply fluctuations, which required us to monitor real-time data to recommend how many vaccines could be given on a week-by-week basis.
We also modelled the scheduling of vaccinations. Our work gave Royal Mail an idea of the number of Blue Envelopes going out each week, enabling them to cope with the massive flood of invitation letters over the already busy festive period. Our scheduling analysis also helped clinical and policy colleagues, making decisions for the programme to understand the implications around the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for different age groups in April 2021.
The September 2021 booster programme started out as a much smaller exercise than the rollout of first and second doses. Supply was no longer a limiting factor, so focus pivoted to the pace at which vaccines were given. Our team’s work involved using real-time management information to monitor uptake levels against the plan to assess progress. We also analysed how many, and how quickly, doses had to be given. Our modelling was at Health Board-level, which enabled us to identify any specific areas where vaccines were not being given quickly enough.
While this programme was not limited by supply, we still had to robustly estimate what our supply requirements were to minimise vaccine waste. Our team works with the UK Government Vaccine Task Force (VTF) to ensure that the appropriate number of vaccination doses are allocated to Scotland. Using operational management information, we update VTF on the number of doses given and population coverage, and forecast the anticipated number of doses we need for the weeks to come. Our analysis enables the right amount of vaccine doses to arrive with us at the right time, to minimise storage problems and waste, and to maximise where vaccines can be used elsewhere if not needed in Scotland or UK.
We continued to model expected numbers of first and second doses during the booster programme. This meant that anyone who was either not eligible at the start of the programme, or initially chose not to receive the vaccine, would have the option of being vaccinated.
The risk to population health posed by both flu and COVID-19 meant that co-administration appointments, where both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines are given in the same appointment, were used. Our analysis informed the optimal proportion of appointments that must be co-administration, making the programme as efficient as possible. This efficiency meant that as many people as possible were protected against Covid-19 and flu before winter.
However, in November, the highly infectious Omicron variant emerged. The vaccination programme had to adapt very quickly to increase protection ahead of the anticipated Omicron peak, and so did our analysis. With both the festive period and the associated increase in potential transmission events also looming, the “Boosted by the Bells” target – to offer every adult and eligible young person in Scotland a booster appointment by the end of 2021 – was set.
Our planning analysis and modelling were both updated at pace to accommodate this change to the programme. Similarly, the volume of analysis required increased. Our team briefed Ministers weekly on progress towards the target, incredibly moving to daily briefings in the run up to Christmas! By Hogmanay, 77% of eligible adults had received a booster or third dose. This equated to 2.98 million booster doses– equal to one dose per second.
Spring 2022 saw the start of the ‘second booster’ programme, where another booster dose was offered to those most at risk. Our team’s analysis on the optimal rate of vaccinations for this programme, balancing the need to protect as many people as quickly as possible with the need for a sustainable vaccinating workforce. This planning also fed through to the latest, winter 2022/23 programme, where we continued to monitor progress using the same methods that we have used, and refined, over previous programmes.
Our analytical team was part of the wider Covid and Flu National Vaccination Programme team, which was awarded the Unison Scotland Scottish Health Awards Top Team Award. As of November 2021, an estimated 27,000 lives in Scotland were saved by the COVID-19 vaccination programme, and 86% of deaths among those aged over 60 in Scotland were averted by vaccines. The success of the vaccination programme was a result of the contributions of many, from the scientists who developed the vaccine, to vaccinators and clinical staff who administered doses to the population. I’m grateful to have been able to play a part in the programme as an analyst, and to have seen the beneficial impacts of our work at population-level.