Britain is reluctant to move in response to Government COVID-19 advice – but not when it is sunny

29 June 2020

Britain is proving reluctant to start moving, despite the Government’s relaxation of a series of lockdown measures, according to data from the Oxford COVID-19 Impact Monitor. Although official announcements have been made to lift restrictions, data from the Monitor shows that the country is still moving less than 50% of the pre-lockdown distance.

Ten weeks’ ago, at the height of the lockdown, a 98% reduction in movement compared to pre-lockdown levels was recorded. But, as measures have been lifted, Government announcements have not been followed by immediate ‘spikes’, as might have been expected. The Monitor’s daily figures show, the return towards ‘normalisation’ has been slow and gradual – at a rate of around 2-3% per cent a week.

Commenting on the gradual pace of the normalisation of the population movement, Dr Matthias Qian says, ‘We explain the slow and steady increase in mobility with the lockdown fatigue of the population while destination choices are limited. The key driver of population movement is the daily commute to work, and these commutes remain muted as many offices have yet to reopen.’

By Monday last week, UK average travelling had increased to around 45% of pre-lockdown levels, according to the Monitor. Created using aggregated and anonymised mobile phone location data from across the country, the Monitor is the biggest data set for the impact of COVID-19 on UK population movement and is based on kilometres travelled.

But last Thursday, the hottest day of the year so far, saw the highest levels of movement in all regions since the crisis began. The North East recorded movement of nearly 70% pre-lockdown levels, the South West recorded some 60% pre-lockdown levels of movement. But, in Wales, movement was at 45% of pre-lockdown levels, in Scotland it was 43% and in London movement remained at some 36% of pre-lockdown.

Although the country responded rapidly to the imposition of the lockdown - and hot weather - the Monitor data shows this has not been the experience in response to lockdown easing. As the lockdown was announced, on 23 March, travelling had reduced by more than 70%. The highest lockdown compliance level recorded was on Easter bank holiday Monday, 13 April, when the Prime Minister had only just been released from hospital. That day, nationally recorded movement was at two per cent of the pre-lockdown average.

On 22 April, the Government announced it was no longer an offence to leave home without an excuse. However, the next day, the Monitor showed an increase in movement of just 2% compared to pre-lockdown levels. After 13 May, when non-essential workers were allowed to return to work, if social distancing were maintained, the next day UK movement showed a 1% increase in movement.

Dr Adam Saunders comments, ‘What appears to be happening is that more people have started to move further but only around the area in which they live. Travel beyond these home areas is more limited. So people have an inherent need to get out and about but they are keeping those activities relatively local in comparison to pre-lockdown movement patterns.’

Data from the Monitor also reveals that there is considerable variation in regional movement patterns, with people in some locations consistently moving further than the average and some other regions.

The population of the North East, which suffered a serious COVID-19 outbreak in May with double the rate of deaths of London, has consistently moved further than the national average, according to the Monitor, as have people in the South West. Meanwhile, London and Wales have consistently moved less than the average.

The gap between the regions which move the most and those which have been moving the least has widened over the weeks from around 6% to some 20%. On 16 March, the North East is shown to have reduced movement by 8%, compared to pre-lockdown levels, while Scotland reduced movement by 14%. Meanwhile, on 22 June, the North East was moving 47% less than pre-lockdown, compared to London, which was moving 66% less and Scotland 70% less. 

Since Easter, both Wales and Scotland, which have different regulations, have consistently recorded lower movement levels, compared with the UK average but similar to London’s.

Dr Saunders continues, ‘As has been seen with the recent extension of lockdown measures in Leicester, given that people are still staying closer to home and moving less between areas and regions, the government can put in place targeted local social distancing measures to fight higher infection rates in specific locations where there are surges that can potentially be effective.’

The level of homestayers has followed similar trends, although the UK as a whole has decreasing numbers of home stayers every week. But the share of the population remaining at home is higher in Scotland and Wales than the national average. Meanwhile, supermarket visits have now stabilised at a level roughly 55% of pre-lockdown levels. This is also despite the opening of non-essential retail shops.

Dr Qian concludes, ‘While we observed a uniform drop in population movement as we entered the lockdown, with movement dropping more than 90 percent in every single local area, the recovery in population movement is much less evenly distributed. Governments need to continuously monitor the health risks at a local level and intervene early on if the case load increases again.’

Notes for Editors

  1. The Impact Monitor, seen here, was developed by a team from across the University of Oxford led by Dr Adam Saunders (SKOPE, Department of Education) and Dr Matthias Qian (Department of Economics).
  2.  Team members include Daniel Pesch (Saïd Business School), Dr Steven Reece (Department of Engineering Science), Dr Won Do Lee (Transport Studies Unit, School of Geography and the Environment), Professor Renaud Lambiotte (Mathematical Institute) and Lucas Kruitwagen (School of Geography and the Environment).
  3. Project partners include:
    Oracle - supporting the online tool with cloud-based high performance computing
    Cuebiq - providing anonymised and aggregated data from opted-in users via its Data for Good programme
    CKDelta - providing a wide array of anonymised and aggregated data
    Facebook’s Data for Good programme – which provided the UK population density map base layer, built with satellite imagery and census data, for validation purposes
  4. Press Enquiries to