From vaccine inequality and fluctuating Covid-19 case rates to the rise and fall of GB News and the true state of levelling up, the New Statesman‘s data team has crunched the numbers behind the key news events and trends of the past 12 months.
Covid’s third coming
Almost as soon as the year had started, England found itself plunged into a third national lockdown as a new wave of Covid-19 swept the UK. Led by a newly mutated variant – now known as Alpha – infections rose rapidly in late 2020, peaking just before the new year.
New Covid-19 variants would go on to become a major theme of 2021, with the UK subsequently suffering from a wave of Delta and then the super-infectious Omicron strain. The battle between the new variants and the UK’s vaccination programme is still ongoing – at the time of writing (22 December), 52 per cent of people over the age of 12 have had three doses of the vaccine, the recommended number to provide significant protection against Omicron. Throughout 2021, there have been 9 million cases of Covid-19 in the UK, and 73,359 people died within a month of testing positive for the virus. Michael Goodier
The Conservatives' lost poll lead
2021 started with Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and Keir Starmer’s Labour Party neck and neck in the polls. A poor handling of the country’s tier-based Covid restrictions had shaken confidence in the Prime Minister’s ability to govern effectively, but the announcement of vaccines coupled with what was perceived to be a successful negotiation of Britain’s complete exit from the European Union sent the Tory poll lead soaring.
By May, 20 million Brits had received their second job, and the devolved and local election results rewarded the governing party accordingly. Labour’s efforts were dire in some parts – a reflection of the general election result two years previously.
By August and September, that lead had started to fade somewhat. Public attention moved from coronavirus to the economic crises. Talk of a universal credit cut, the end of the furlough scheme and an upcoming harsh winter caused voter uncertainty to rise. By November, issues of sleaze grabbed national attention and sent the Tory poll lead crashing, giving Labour its first significant poll lead in years.
When sleaze became personal for the Prime Minister at the start of December, Labour’s leads went from 1-2 points to 5-8 points. The Tories end 2021 on the back foot. Whether it’s a consequence of a temporary splurge of news stories or something more long-term is yet to be seen, but according to Ipsos Mori most Brits now expect Boris Johnson will be gone within the year.
Let’s see about that. Ben Walker
How GB News flopped
The "anti-woke" news channel GB News burst enthusiastically on to the scene in June with its lead presenter and chairman, Andrew Neil, pledging to cover “the stories that matter to you and those that have been neglected”.
But less than six months later viewership figures suggest that the initial reaction to the channel may have been bigger than the channel itself. Ratings – never spectacular – plummeted over the summer and autumn. Neil resigned less than three months after helping launch the channel.
The latest weekly reach data from the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (BARB) as of the end of November shows that just 1.9 million people watched the opinion-led news channel, less than a quarter of the number of people that were reached by Sky News (7.9 million).
Recent figures suggest, however, that some shows, including Nigel Farage’s flagship programme, could be starting to attract regular audiences. Farage’s interview with Trump attracted 190,000 viewers on 1 December. Although this represented just 1.3 per cent of British viewers at the time, it was a higher number than for Sky News and BBC News’ programming in the same slot.
However, BARB data continues to reveal that while some high-profile programmes such as Farage and Colin Brazier’s flagship shows are attracting viewers, in most time-slots the channel fails to compete with more established players. Aisha Majid
The deepening refugee crisis
The chaotic evacuation of Kabul in August, the use of refugees as political pawns on the EU’s border with Belarus from September and the tragic drowning of 31 people crossing the Channel in November all brought the plight of the world’s forcibly displaced population back into the public eye, in a way not seen since the 2015-16 Mediterranean refugee crisis.
The number of refugees and asylum seekers globally reached 25.2 million by June 2021, the largest number ever recorded by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Syrians made up 10 per cent of those applying for asylum during the first six months of the year, up from 6.4 per cent in 2020.
Russia’s intervention in the Central African Republic’s long-running civil war coincided with a surge in refugees from the country. The number fleeing every month rose from an average of 430 throughout 2019 and 2020 to almost 8,000 during the first half of 2021. Ben van der Merwe
England’s new fans
In June, as Covid-19 case numbers fell and temperatures rose, the Uefa Euro 2020 football tournament got underway. England’s team beat all expectations, making it into the final against Italy – its first in a major men’s tournament in more than half a century.
As England entered the final, however, just 35 per cent of Scots said they would be backing them. The pro-independence daily the National went so far as to publish a mock-up of Italian manager Roberto Mancini as Braveheart’s William Wallace on its front page.
The New Statesman’s analysis of 40,000 tweets sent during and after the match showed that viewers in Scotland were indeed rooting for Italy during the first half of the match, but changed sides after a missed penalty by Marcus Rashford turned England into the underdog.
Rashford’s political activism likely played a part. As of January, Scots were four times more likely to say that Rashford had done a “very good job” holding the government to account over Covid-19 than they were to say the same about Keir Starmer. Ben van der Merwe
The return of inflation
As the dust from the initial shock of the pandemic wave settled, many countries started experiencing decade-high levels of inflation. In the US, the Consumer Price Index, which measures how much people pay for a basket of goods and services, has increased by 6.8 per cent in the year to November 2021, reaching levels not seen since 1982.
UK inflation has also increased, though by a smaller percentage of 4.6. Much of this inflation was caused by global supply chain disruptions and shortages, which have boosted the prices of essentials such as food and fuel. Many developing countries, which already had higher than average inflation levels before the pandemic, will be impacted particularly hard by rising prices. In Argentina, for example, inflation is 51.2 per cent up on last year while Turkey’s inflation growth has passed 21.3 per cent. Nicu Calcea
The scourge of vaccine inequality
As the world faces the prospect of another lockdown to prevent the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, experts say we are experiencing the repercussions of the huge vaccine inequality that has persisted throughout 2021. Across high-income and upper middle-income countries, more than three-quarters of people have had at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.
But while wealthy governments are now trying to get a booster in the arm of their entire population, the majority of people in poorer countries haven’t even had one dose yet. In low-income countries, less than 8 per cent of the population have had their first vaccine. Katharine Swindells
The Afghanistan debacle
In August, the world watched as 20 years of US-led intervention in Afghanistan unwound in a matter of weeks. As the Taliban surrounded Kabul, thousands crowded into the airport in the hope of securing spaces on the last flights out of the country.
The US president, Joe Biden, told reporters: “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”
Data from the Costs of War Project, however, shows that Afghans make up the overwhelming majority of the war’s death toll. An estimated 114,745 Afghan government forces and civilians were killed over the two decades of conflict, compared to just 6,228 US military personnel and contractors. Ben van der Merwe
The NHS emergency
When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, the number of patients at emergency departments dropped dramatically. Medical professionals were worried, with the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, having to remind people that “the NHS is open for business”.
As restrictions were gradually lifted in 2021, with Covid-19 still at relatively high levels, the NHS has been stretched. In October there were record wait times of nine minutes and 20 seconds for category one ambulances (those for life-threatening situations), and waits have risen across the board, reaching an average of more than one hour for any type of ambulance. Combined with workforce shortages and a rising tide of Omicron patients, the figures don’t bode well for winter, which is already usually the busiest time of year for the health service. Michael Goodier
How fossil fuels resurged
The environmental impact of lockdown was one of the few positives of the 2020 pandemic. With commercial electricity demand lower and international transport suspended, coal, oil and gas production respectively fell by 3.1 per cent, 4.8 per cent and 1.9 per cent in 2020 compared with 2019, shows data from GlobalData.
CO2 emissions fell by 7 per cent in 2020, a drop that the UN estimated at the end of 2019 would be needed every year to reach net zero by mid-century.
But this climate win has proved temporary. Hand-in-hand with the global economic recovery, coal and gas production are estimated to have exceeded 2019 levels in 2021, while oil is expected to do so by 2023. CO2 emissions are predicted to increase this year by around 5 per cent, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
“The demand fall during the pandemic was entirely linked to governments’ decision to restrict movements and had nothing to do with the energy transition,” Cuneyt Kazokoglu, an analyst at consultancy FGE, told Reuters earlier this year when the trend was first predicted. “The energy transition and decarbonisation are decade-long strategies and do not happen overnight.” Nick Ferris
Hollow climate pledges
Glasgow’s Cop26 climate conference was widely billed as the last chance to save the planet’s future. In the days leading up to the two-week event, large emitters such as Australia, Russia and India pledged to reach net zero emissions between 2050 and 2070.
Around 90 per cent of emissions are now covered by a net zero pledge. The International Energy Agency (IEA) said during Cop26 that this meant the world would be on track for a temperature rise of 1.8°C this century – close to the 1.5°C considered “safe” for the planet.
But a separate analysis by the think tank Climate Action Tracker (Cat), released just days after the IEA’s announcement, found that just countries covering just 6 per cent of global emissions have adequately supported their pledges with policies and interim 2030 targets. Cat added that if we are to base temperature modelling solely on policies (ie what is likely to happen), then the world is still on track for 2.7°C – warming that would be catastrophic.
Despite the posturing that took place at Cop26, the report’s authors warned that real domestic policy implementation is “advancing at a snail’s pace”. In the year 2022 there will be even greater pressure on countries to deliver real climate action, even as many of the terrible climate impacts the world once hoped to avoid are beginning to appear inevitable. Nick Ferris
The true state of levelling up
During his first speech as Prime Minister in 2019, Boris Johnson doubled down on the Conservative manifesto’s commitment to "level up" Britain.
Two years on, Johnson’s promise to tackle inequality "with higher wages, and a higher living wage, and higher productivity" rings hollow, as data from the New Economics Foundation reveals that the rich have got richer, while poorer people’s purses have been pinched the hardest.
Comparing 2019 household incomes with forecasted incomes for December this year, using a model based on data from the Department for Work and Pensions (and other sources), the research finds that the top 5 per cent of families have experienced disposable income gains of over £3,300, on an annualised basis.
By contrast, the poorest 50 per cent have had their incomes reduced by an average of £110 in real terms. In percentage terms, the lowest income group experienced a 0.5 per cent reduction in disposable income, while the wealthiest gained 2 per cent.
These figures reflect a sharp rise in income inequality, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, as the UK is forecast to suffer the deepest economic scarring of any G20 country by 2025.
An unhappy combination of rising interest rates, the continuous effects of Brexit, and looming pandemic restrictions (unaccompanied by robust support measures for low income workers) could further widen the inequality gap. Polly Bindman