In 2021, the UPD team at Wellcome commissioned freelance data consultant and author Gavin Freeguard to undertake a project centred around a long-form journalistic piece setting out how the R number - extensively used in public policy-making and public discourse during the covid-19 pandemic - was developed and used. This would include its data sources, limitations or caveats, and how it influenced/informed major public health decisions. In doing so, it would illustrate key themes in how data is used, including ethical considerations and standards, and making often obscure technical debates more tangible.

With the transfer of UPD from Wellcome to NHS Confederation, publication of the piece was postponed. However, we are now pleased to say that, in partnership with Significance, the piece is being published throughout 2024 in their bimonthly journal issues. This means that every other month there will be a new section of Gavin’s work in the Significance journal. Breaking it down in this way supports Gavin’s vision of chronicling “the birth of the R number” right from its inception all the way through to lessons we can learn from it beyond Covid-19.

Part 1:

The Story of the R Number Part 1: History

Part 2:

The Story of the R Number Part 2: Modelling


Unlike our other resources, this is an opinion piece, which means it is not intended to represent the views of Understanding Patient Data, but rather those of Gavin Freeguard as the author. We would like to thank Gavin for undertaking the project and being patient with its publication, and to Significance for accepting it for publication.