Dr Sotiris Georganas, Reader in Behavioural Economics at City, University of London, takes a deep dive into Google Mobility data to assess how well the public were sticking to the rules in May 2020
Many people around the UK have been scrolling back through the photos on their phones to remind themselves where they were on May 2020, while staff at 10 Downing Street were gathering for what Boris Johnson insists was a work event but which is currently under investigation as a potential breach of lockdown rules.
Some have posted their pictures online. They reveal a life of tedium at best and outright tragedy at worst. Members of the public have spoken out about being forced to leave their relatives to die alone because lockdown rules prevented them from staying by their side. Others recall that they were taking tentative steps outside to see people from whom they’d been separated for months – but all the while maintaining social distance of several metres in compliance with the rules set by the government.
The UK was in something of a transition period at that time but was still living under heavy restrictions, two months into its first national lockdown. Before rules were relaxed on May 13, just a week before the key gathering in Downing Street, the public had not been allowed to leave their homes at all apart from to shop for essentials and do their daily exercise.
After May 13, they could spend time outside. And it was glorious weather across much of the country – as the leaked email apparently inviting staff to Downing Street attested. However, anyone heading outside was not allowed to meet more than one person from outside their household. Before May 13, they had not even technically been allowed to sit down in a park.
So, what was the rest of the country doing on the week of May 20 2020 when staff were gathering in the Downing Street garden? While precise data are not available, Google does release estimates of people’s movements around that time. This is based on the movement of mobile devices using Android or other Google software (Google maps etc).
The data covers time spent in six location categories: homes; workplaces; parks; public transport stations; grocery shops and pharmacies; and retail and recreational locations. The aggregated data on time spent at each of the location types is then released compared to a baseline: the five-week period between January 3 and February 6 2020, before the pandemic really kicked in.
The data shows that in the seven days around May 20, people spent 20% more time at home compared to the baseline. Since people must have spent at least 12 hours at home on average before the pandemic, that means at least 14.5 to 15 hours a day spent at home.
Given that some key workers actually went to work and some outside activity was allowed, this means that most people spent most of their time strictly following the rules – spending the vast majority of their time at home. Time spent at work was down about 55% in that week compared to the baseline since many people were working from home.
We can see that people were spending more time grocery shopping than they had been in deepest lockdown, but still far from the norm. In March 2020, trips to the shops had been down 35% on the norm. By May they were 19% lower than the norm – though it’s worth remembering that even then, only essential shops were open. And of course people spent practically no time in shopping centres, restaurants, cafes and other recreation (a reduction of about 65% on the baseline), since they were mostly closed as a result of lockdown measures.
How much people in different European countries stayed at home at different times during the pandemic
It is pretty clear from the Google mobility data that the British public were adhering to the rules quite well in the time that Downing Street was having the infamous gatherings. Although some relaxation in the rules was starting to happen, and evidence of fatigue would become apparent in Britain and other countries in the subsequent months, social distancing was still the norm in May 2020.
With much of the UK still living severely constrained lives, the news that the very people setting the rules didn’t appear to be following them as closely as the wider public looks understandably outrageous to many citizens. From a behavioural economics perspective, such breeches erode the public’s all important trust in institutions and make the fight against this pandemic, or other emergencies in the future, that much harder.