Has there been a "Cummings effect" on lockdown compliance?

The data shows increased mobility during the Cummings story, but it is harder to prove a causal link.

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Did the news of Dominic Cummings' trips to Durham and Barnard Castle have an effect on the British public's adherence to lockdown rules?

The latest evidence indicates that the controverisal story of the Prime Minister's chief adviser breaking lockdown rules coincided with a sharp increase in driving and walking in the UK, as shown in Apple data collected from smartphones.

On 13 May, the day Boris Johnson announced that the public in England could take unlimited amounts of daily exercise, the number of requests for driving directions made through Apple Maps was at around 55 per cent of what it was in pre-Covid times.

That number steadily increased, reaching 72 per cent by 22 May  — the day the Guardian and Daily Mirror published the investigation about Cummings' trip to Durham. The investigation alleged that Cummings drove more than 250 miles to his parents’ farm in Durham in spite of government guidelines to avoid all non-essential travel.

Pedestrian activity saw a similar increase from 51 per cent on 13 May to 65 per cent on 22 May.

A few days later, on 25 May, Cummings held a press conference in which he defended his actions. The chart below shows how driving and pedestrian mobility increased sharply in that week.

Mobility is rapidly approaching pre-coronavirus levels

Different numbers from Google, which show the number of visits to different types of destinations, reveal exactly where all of this activity is happening.

Mobility in grocery shops, public transport stations, workplaces and homes has generally remained stable since lockdown measures started and only increased slightly in the past weeks. However, the number of visits to parks has increased dramatically.

Google takes its baseline as the average for each day of the week, measured between 3 January and 6 February. On 13 May, mobility in parks stood at 106 per cent of that baseline. 

That number shot up to 236 per cent of the baseline on 25 May, three days after the Cummings story broke. That’s more than double the level of activity in the first five weeks of the year.

The chart below shows the sharp increase in parks mobility since before lockdown was eased.

Parks are registering sharp increases in the number of visitors

It is difficult, however, to prove a causal link between the Cummings story and the dramatic increase in mobility. There are two other factors at play: firstly, this increase began around the time that certain lockdown measures were eased in England. Secondly, the big rise on 25 May must also be seen in light of the fact it was a bank holiday, and the UK recorded some of the hottest days of the year around that time.

On 28 May, six days after the Cummings story broke, the Prime Minister announced a further set of changes to lockdown measures in England, allowing groups of up to six people to meet outdoors from 1 June, if they maintained a two metre distance. This can be assumed to be one of the largest contributing factors to increased mobility from the date of the announcement onwards.

But there is other evidence to suggest that the Cummings affair may have influenced public attitudes towards the lockdown guidelines.

A survey of 1,201 people released on 31 May by academics at De Montfort University shows that the number of people who admitted to breaking lockdown rules because they disagreed with them had more than doubled, from 4 per cent to 9 per cent, in the span of just one week.

They also found a statistically significant decline in trust for Conservative politicians in the same research.

Another survey, this time from YouGov, found that one in five people had started breaking lockdown rules more often than before. Around a third of those who had broken the rules mentioned the Cummings story as a reason for doing so.

Nicu Calcea is a data journalist at New Statesman Media Group 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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