This is the data that shows why the UK had to go into lockdown

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First came the advice to work from home. Then the government shut pubs, clubs and restaurants. On March 23, prime minister Boris Johnson announced that the UK would be going into lockdown. These unprecedented measures to slow the spread of coronavirus were triggered after many people appeared to ignore social distancing instructions and flocked to parks shops and public spaces.

While much of the criticism focussed on London, where large numbers of people flouted social distancing rules, data creates a more complex picture. Even before the government announced the lockdown, Londoners had already significantly reduced the amount they were attending pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants. On March 19, the day before all pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants across the UK were asked to close, footfall to such venues in London was 76 per cent lower than the same day last year, according to data from Wireless Social, a Wi-Fi hotspot provider.

It was a similar picture of dwindling, but not vanishing, footfall in venues across the UK. On March 19, footfall in Edinburgh fell by 75 per cent, while Cardiff dropped by 74 per cent. In Birmingham, footfall in hospitality venues dropped by 63 per cent, followed by Liverpool and Manchester with falls of 68 and 66 per cent respectively.

While people in cities largely avoided nights out, over half (57 per cent) of the typical number of pub and restaurant goers in Lancashire were still going out on March 19 – the highest number in the UK. This was followed by Cheshire, with 44 per cent of regular patrons continuing to visit their local establishments according to Wireless Social’s Wi-Fi hotspot data. It was only after the announcement last Friday that all pubs and restaurants were to be shut down that behaviour changed.

“People are making decisions generally on the basis of perceived risk,” says Chris Cameron, senior lecturer in behavioural sciences at University of Huddersfield. In the countryside, people feel safer as they interact with more people they know, and so it doesn’t feel as dangerous to continue to leave home. In cities residents feel like they interact with more strangers on a daily basis, who they perceive as less trustworthy and therefore more likely to pass on the virus. The stringent lockdown measures play into the fears of city dwellers, says Cameron, and so will mean that they are more likely to follow them.

Transport app Citymapper has also been tracking the shutdown of cities across the UK. Data from the company shows that for the week ending March 22, Londoners were using the service to plan 36 per cent fewer trips compared to a typical week. On March 23, when the full lockdown was announced, Citymapper reports that 25 per cent of the normal volume of trips were planned.

In Manchester and Birmingham, the app was still being used at 41 and 44 per cent the normal rate. Compared to elsewhere in Europe these figures are concerning. In Milan and Rome, both of which are under far stricter lockdowns, use of Citymapper to plan trips has fallen to four per cent and six per cent of normal levels respectively. Madrid is on five per cent.

On March 21, visitors were urged to stay away from Cornwall by the local council, Public Health Cornwall and the tourist board. Snowdonia National Park said that this past weekend was its busiest for visitors in living memory. Cameron says that there is a perception that the green, open countryside is healthier, so people from cities may be moving out to rural locations, believing that they are more safe. The government has warned against such measures, with authorities in Scotland, Cornwall and Wales urging people not to travel to second homes and put more pressure on rural health services.

Under the UK lockdown, one of the few reasons people are only allowed to leave their houses is to shop for essentials. As a result, there has been a significant rise in the number of times people have been visiting the shops recently – an additional 15 million supermarket visits were made in the week ending March 17, compared to the week ending February 17, according to consulting company Kantar. The data shows that people are buying a little extra and a little more often, according to Kantar’s research.

Alongside supermarkets, health and beauty stores, bargain retailers and convenience stores all saw a rise in sales during the week ending March 17, with trips increasing month-on-month by 25 per cent, 29 per cent and 19 per cent respectively. Meanwhile, visits to pet stores went up by 27 per cent.

Maria Mellor is a writer for WIRED. She tweets from @Maria_mellor

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