Visualising the UK’s lockdowns

Visualising the UK’s lockdowns – Google mobility data

The UK has faced an unprecedented three national lockdowns since the ongoing pandemic began, along with local tiered restrictions, that resulted in the closure of hospitality, retail, workplaces, and even schools. There is no doubt that lockdowns have played a vital role in reducing the level of COVID-19 infections, hospitalisations, and deaths, but it is difficult to get a sense of just how much less social contact and mobility the UK has faced.

Google offer a way to visualise this reduction in social mobility. Since the inception of the pandemic, they have published regular updates to their anonymised ‘Community Mobility Reports’ dataset[1]. This uses anonymous location data of Android smartphones to offer a measure of how the UK population’s mobility has changed throughout the pandemic, relative to the median level of mobility in January and February 2020 (before the first national lockdown). This has been broken down into several categories such as visits to retail and recreation and visits to workplaces. A value of -80 to visits to workplaces in March, for example, means that there has been an 80% reduction in the number of people visiting workplaces in the UK, relative to the number of people who were visiting workplaces in January & February of 2020.

The below graph illustrates the change in visits to retail and recreation in the UK, relative to the January & February 2020 baseline. It is clear to see the impact of the national lockdowns, as non-essential retail and hospitality was forced to close. The first lockdown had the largest impact, followed by the current lockdown. The closest to ‘normal’ levels was seen in the summer, where the government ran the ‘eat out to help out scheme’, but this was still more than 10% below normal levels.

Another way to examine the change in the UK’s social mobility is to examine the change in the relative number of people visiting workplaces. This is shown in the below graph, along with the relevant national restrictions. It is interesting to note that the November ‘circuit breaker’ had a negligible affect on visits to workplaces. In addition, the latest lockdown had a lower impact on visits to workplaces than the first lockdown, most likely due to workplaces becoming ‘covid secure’, with the population adjusting to the COVID-19 ‘new normal’.

The final way of examining mobility in this post is by looking at changes to visits to transit stations (train stations, bus stops, and airports). This is shown in the below and final graph. The trend is remarkably similar to change in visits to retail and recreation, with the November lockdown having a relatively smaller impact than the more pronounced national lockdowns; perhaps this highlights a lack of compliance during the November lockdown. Another reason for the smaller affect of the November lockdown is due to the difference in timing in the circuit breakers of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland meaning that the effect is not as pronounced in the aggregate UK measure.

Levels of mobility are currently far from ‘normal’ levels. As the vaccine roll-out continues at full-pace in the UK, we can remain hopeful that we are slowly moving back to normality. However, COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, and the world is going to have to learn to accept the fact that people will sadly die of COVID-19 each year, just as people sadly die from the flu each year. The question is, given the higher fatality rate of COVID-19, what level of deaths the population will tolerate, and whether smaller-scale prevention methods (masks, hygiene, limits on social distancing, mass testing etc.) will be needed to strike a balance between COVID-19 mortality and the wider health and socioeconomic costs associated with restrictions.


[1] Google, COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, 2021 accessed here: https://www.google.com/covid19/mobility/

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