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I hear you knocking…

Posted on 18 September 2020 by Gillian Prior, Director, Surveys, Data and Analysis .
Tags: Covid-19, NatCen Panel, fieldwork, methods, safety

In this article Gillian Prior, our Head of Surveys, Data and Analysis, considers a new NatCen panel survey examining the public’s views on face-to-face interviews, as well as the current possibilities for restarting face-to-face fieldwork on large-scale surveys.

Since Covid-19 brought about a pause in face-to-face data collection back in March, NatCen has been working hard with our customers to make sure that our important national survey work continues wherever possible. Many surveys have moved to using online and telephone methods. These alternatives continue to have well known and recognised limitations, though, and most customers are keen to return to face-to-face interviewing as soon as it’s safe to do so and the public are ready.

Our initial blog in June urged caution in going back into the field too soon. Since August, NatCen has been taking steps towards the reintroduction of face-to-face interviewing in the new normal, with protocols and procedures modified in compliance with government guidelines to ensure safety for our interviewers and the public. We have already successfully tested a small-scale doorstep interview and are currently trialling using face-to-face interviewers to collect participants’ telephone numbers (from the doorstep), so that a telephone interview can be carried out. Initial feedback from interviewers and participants has been very positive. Further work during the autumn will cover interviewing using video-conferencing, as well as offering an in-home interview approach where suitable (with social distancing and appropriate PPE).

The willingness of the public to take part in face-to-face research is a key factor in our ability to restart. At NatCen, we have asked the members of our random probability panel for their views. As past participants in a face-to-face British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey interview, our panellists are well placed to comment on how they would now view participating in a face-to-face interview, and how the pandemic has affected their attitudes towards taking part in face-to-face survey research.

We asked the panellists how likely they would be to allow an interviewer into their home ‘in the next few days’, to conduct a face-to-face interview about something they thought was important. Feelings about this were mixed. Around two-fifths of respondents (39%) said they would be likely to do so, a further two-fifths (39%) said they would not be very likely, and close to a quarter (23%) said definitely not.

Overall, around half of respondents (52%) said that they were now less likely than before the outbreak to allow a survey interviewer into their home. Interestingly 16% said that they would now be more likely, possibly because they are more likely to be at home now.

Use of PPE and other safety measures would help to increase people’s willingness to take part in an in-home interview. Around a third (34%) would be more willing to allow an interviewer into their home if the interviewer wore a mask, and 27% if the respondent wore a mask. Around a quarter (24%) would be more willing if the interviewer wore gloves. Covid-19 testing would give some reassurance but no more than wearing a mask would - just over a third (36%) said that they would be more willing to take part if they knew that the interviewer had been tested recently.

Being able to take part in an interview in an open space such as a garden would increase willingness to take part - the majority of respondents (57%) would be more likely to agree to an interview in these circumstances. Carrying out an interview on the doorstep is another option that removes the need for an interviewer to go inside the respondent’s home. But the proportion saying they would be more willing if the interview could be done on the doorstep was lower at 35%, and a significant minority (17%) said this would make them less likely to agree. This may reflect their experience of the BSA interview, which has an average length of around 45 minutes. Many of our national surveys are a similar length (or longer) so carrying out an interview on the doorstep for those surveys would not really be feasible.  

Offering alternative modes for survey completion is more likely to meet with public approval. Just over half of respondents (54%) said they would be willing to take part in an interview over the phone, following a call at their home from an interviewer to collect their telephone number. A similar proportion (52%) would be willing to take part in a video call with an interviewer. But, despite the widespread use of Zoom calls to keep in touch with family and friends during lockdown, close to a fifth of people (18%) said that they would not be able to participate in this way, so it would need to be used alongside other modes to guarantee representativeness. Download the full data here (.xlsx).

Overall, whilst restrictions are slowly lifting, children are returning to school, and other aspects of life are returning closer to ‘normal’, the persistence of the pandemic means that life is very different in many ways from how it was pre-Covid-19. The introduction of the new ‘rule of six’ highlights that the pandemic is far from over and the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has said that the period between now and Spring 2021 will be ‘difficult’. This uncertainty is reflected in the views of the public; whilst some people would be willing to take part in face-to-face interviews, much as they did before, this wasn’t the case for the majority of respondents. A menu of options looks currently the most appropriate way to get public consent to an interview.

At NatCen, we are planning with our customers for most of our large-scale surveys to restart with face-to-face as the preferred mode for the 2021 survey year (either January or April, depending on the study). Our advice to customers continues to be that plans for early 2021 and beyond will need to be flexible, though. Official guidance in 2021 may still vary for different parts of the UK, and restrictions may be reintroduced in response to local outbreaks or a national increase in infection rates. While Government is keen for organisations and the public to get back to more normal working arrangements, the need to offer alternative completion modes alongside in-home interviews (such as online, video or telephone interviews) in response to these restrictions, or for people who are unwilling or unable to allow an interviewer into their home, may continue well into 2021.

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