Visualising COVID-19 in the UK: Google Search Trends

Another way to visualise COVID-19 in the UK is by examining changes in what the population have been Googling throughout the pandemic. Google publish data on ‘relative search interests over time’ for any Google search term (see here). For a given country, period in time, and search term, the ‘relative search interest’ is scored from 0 to 100; a score of 100 corresponds to the day in that period of time where that term had the highest number of searches. For example, take people in the UK searching ‘dogs’ in 2020. If 21st May had a score of 100, that means this was the day in 2020 where most people searched the term ‘dogs’. If 19th April had a score of 50, this means that there were half as many searches for ‘dogs’ than on 21st May.

The below charts all begin on the 1st January 2020 and end on 18th April 2021 (and so search interests are all relative to this period). They are also ‘weekly’ averages and so refer to the average number of searches for a trend per week and the shaded regions denote national lockdowns. The chart below shows the relative search interest in the UK for this period for people searching ‘Coronavirus’. What is interesting is that the peak number of searches for ‘Coronavirus’ occured before the UK entered the first lockdown. Since this peak, search interest has slowly declined. This is likely due to the lack of a need to Google ‘Coronavirus’, given that it has widespread coverage in the media and is now harder to actively avoid than actively find.

The figure below shows the relative search interest in the UK for the term ‘Train times’. This peaked in February 2020, before rapidly declining during the first UK lockdown (shaded in the chart). Interest then picked up in the summer of 2020, as hospitality reopened and the ‘Stay at Home’ message was relaxed. There is then a noticeable dip moving into Autumn, as the Tier system was introduced in the UK. Further dips can be then seen in both the November 2020 ‘Circuit Breaker’ and the 2021 national lockdown. Finally, this search trend has started to increase as we emerge out of the latest (and longest) national lockdown.

This is also a very simple way to gauge the level of social mobility in the UK, and tracks other data such as Google mobility data and even the UK’s GDP surprisingly well.

The final chart below shows the relative search interest in the UK for the term ‘Flights’. This trend is very similar to “Train times” but there are a couple of interesting and notable differences. First, there is a clear peak in early March as people were likely scrambling to fly home before the UK (and other countries) COVID-19 restrictions prevented flights. Second, a clear spike can be seen around the Christmas period, potentially due to the sudden onset of COVID-19 restrictions.

A final point of interest is that searches for ‘Flights’ in the UK are the lowest they have been in the period since January 2020. Perhaps people are resigned to the fact that holidays are likely to take place in the UK this year, but it will be interesting to see what happens once the restrictions on international travel begin to ease.