As Covid-19 cases continue to rise in the UK, millions of people have entered local lockdown. At present, around a third of Britons live under some form of tighter restrictions.
Most of the restrictions relate to the mixing of households indoors, including in pubs and restaurants. But infection rates have continued to soar in many areas that are ostensibly “locked down”. So how much are local restrictions actually affecting behaviour?
To find out, we examined anonymised mobile phone tracking data from Google, which shows how visits and length of stay at different places have changed compared to the period 3 January-6 February, as well as high-street recovery data from the Centre for Cities. A New Statesman analysis found that there was almost no difference in the level of movement to and from either workplaces or homes when comparing areas under local restrictions to those under national restrictions only.
[See also: Stephen Bush: Why aren’t local lockdowns working?]
The graphic below shows levels of “residential” mobility during the last week of September. It suggests Brits were moving to, from and around their homes just as much in areas under local restrictions as they were in areas under national restrictions only, compared to a baseline set at the start of the year.
What about restrictions on eating out and drinking? While Brits in areas under local lockdown restrictions were 21.7 per cent less likely to visit restaurants, cafés and cinemas compared to pre-pandemic levels, this figure was not much lower than the 16.9 per cent drop for areas that are not under local restrictions. City centres with local restrictions also didn’t register a particularly large drop in footfall in the last week of September compared to areas that are under fewer restrictions.
In Blackpool residential mobility rose by less than almost all other areas under local restrictions, up just 5.7 per cent on pre-pandemic levels. But Blackpool has also experienced the biggest rise in city-centre footfall, according to Centre for Cities data, with numbers 41.4 per cent higher than before the Covid-19 outbreak.
Despite the additional restrictions, people in most areas under local lockdown are only marginally less likely to go to pubs, restaurants, supermarkets and parks than in the rest of the UK. The graphic below shows the change in mobility by destination type during the last week of September compared to pre-pandemic levels. Note that Google’s coverage is incomplete for some destinations – such as retail and recreation – due to the company changing the way it reports the figures.
The reason cities and other areas under local restrictions are not recording sharper drops in mobility may ultimately be due to lockdown fatigue as well as confusion about the rules. A report from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government found that the government’s handling of the Leicester lockdown led to “some confusion about the nature of the restrictions… what the precise requirements were, the timing of commencement of the measures and the geographical reach”, which has led to a “lack of confidence in and questioning of the decision”.
A further point worth considering is that local lockdowns were never supposed to stop movement, and never expected to reduce new Covid-19 cases entirely and immediately. The government has always sought to strike a balance: curbing case number without causing excessive economic damage. The question is whether the balance has been well struck by the government’s current “whack-a-mole” approach. The evidence suggests not: not only have we seen relatively insignificant changes in public mobility, but also a spike in cases in areas under local lockdown.
As Covid-19 cases continue to rise, it is unlikely that many areas will see restrictions lifted. At the same time, the longer lockdowns continue, the less effective they are. It is likely more areas around the UK will face additional restrictions in the coming weeks and, if the rate of infection stays at the same level, these restrictions may need to be toughened.