Coronavirus: Have we respected the lockdown?

Traffic seen in rear-view mirror Image copyright Getty Images

After more than eight weeks of lockdown, Scotland seems poised to take the first tentative steps back to normality. So how well has the country adhered to the restrictions, and has discipline started to crack? Certainly it seems like our parks and roads are getting busier - but is there a way we can confirm this?

Enter Google.

The tech giant has been publishing so-called "community mobility" reports since April.

This is a rather euphemistic way of referring to the tracking people's movements during the coronavirus lockdown.

These reports exist for countries ranging from Afghanistan, to the United Kingdom, to Zimbabwe.

Each one is broken down into six high level categories including retail, grocery stores, parks, public transport, workplaces, and home residences.

Essentially the data allows us to monitor footfall to these locations or - put another way - whether or not people have been adhering to the lockdown restrictions.

This is done by comparing people's movements to baseline (or pre-lockdown) behaviour - essentially this shows us how we've changed our typical daily lifestyle.

Google's motivation behind this initiative is to ostensibly help public health officials make critical policy decisions to combat Covid-19.

The reports are based on location data that the company has harvested from people's smartphones.

Google maintains that this data has been aggregated and, more importantly, anonymised, to protect people's privacy.

So what does the data actually tell us?

Overall the data suggests that - despite the divergence on 10 May in policy between the UK and Scottish governments over how and when to ease the restrictions - Scots are still largely staying at home.

I've cherry-picked select councils to illustrate trends for each of the six mobility categories.

Grocery stores and pharmacies

Visits to grocery stores across Scotland appeared to spike a week before the lockdown began in Scotland on 23 March.

They then drastically decreased by about 40%.

One could argue this confirms stories we heard about the panic-buying of items such as loo roll and pasta.

Since then it looks like these trips have remained fairly level - with the exception of Sundays which appears to be the day to go grocery shopping in most households.

Parks and castles

Trips to parks (which includes castles, gardens, national parks, campgrounds and even observation decks!) also plummeted once the lockdown began.

However, the data does suggest some council areas have respected the restrictions better than others.

For example, in Glasgow and Edinburgh, visits to parks have barely reached the pre-lockdown baseline level.

Whereas inhabitants of Dundee and South Lanarkshire have been visiting parks significantly more than normal - even outside of weekends.

Homes and workplaces

Google's residential and workplace data shows a fairly uniform picture across Scotland.

Since lockdown there's been about a 30% increase (from the baseline data) of people staying at home.

That appears to marry with the 60% decrease on average of people going to their workplaces (and presumably now working from home or on furlough).

The peaks and troughs in both sets of data unsurprisingly coincide with the weekend, or periods of good weather.

Have we respected the lockdown?

Transit stations

Similarly the use of "transit stations" (including subways, taxi stands, car rental agencies and even motorway lay-bys) appear to have decreased by between 40% and 80% below baseline levels across the country.

However, public transport usage in recent weeks has crept up by about 20% in places like Fife and West Lothian.

Interestingly though, levels in Glasgow and Edinburgh have barely shifted from 80% below the normal usage.

Retail and recreation

Finally we have the combination of retail and recreation for which Google doesn't give an exact definition.

Assuming this is primarily visits to shopping and leisure centres we can see that trips decreased by a uniform 80% below the "normal" level.

However these trips have steadily increased as the lockdown has gone on.

What doesn't the data tell us?

While the Google reports gives us a fascinating insight into people's movements during lockdown, there are a few caveats around the data:

  • The data only captures the movements of people who have turned on the location history setting in their Google account. This location-sharing setting is off by default which means these mobility reports are only ever giving us a limited insight.
  • There are significant data gaps for some categories for more rural and remote areas such as Orkney, Shetland Islands, and the Western Isles. Google says these gaps are intentional and occur because the data doesn't meet the quality and privacy threshold - namely when there isn't enough data to ensure anonymity

The data also isn't as granular level as I would like. I'd like to see a breakdown by council neighbourhoods and if possible, by age, gender and deprivation indicators.

If we had this data, it could provide some interesting insights into what impact deprivation has on a person's ability and/or privilege to be able to work from home.

South of the border

The UK government announced an easing of its lockdown restrictions for England on 10 May - a divergence from the Scottish government's policy which asked people to still adhere to the stricter restrictions.

Looking at the Google data we can see that even before the prime minister's announcement, people in England and Wales seem to have been gradually venturing out more.

Trips to parks have skyrocketed to 40-100% above the baseline rate in places like Southend-On-Sea and Gloucestershire.

And interestingly, even before the row around Dominic Cummings erupted, trips to County Durham had increased dramatically.

It also looks like people in places like Gloucestershire, Manchester and Devon were slowly starting to return to work ahead of Boris Johnson's announcement.

This seems to be backed up by increases of around 20% in the use of public transport in places like Wrexham and Gloucestershire.

Lastly, compared to other parts of the UK, it seems people in Neath Port Talbot were desperate to get back into groceries and pharmacies, with trips already back to pre-lockdown levels.

A Cummings effect?

However, the current data set from Google currently only takes us up to 16 May.

The next release from Google could provide even more interesting insights.

Primarily what impact, if any, will the Dominic Cummings controversy have had on people's attitudes towards staying at home both in Scotland and the rest of the UK?

And will people's resolve be broken by improving weather (even here in Scotland)?