Each week, Google releases a global data set that shows the movement of people within different countries and regions as they respond to Covid-19. Here’s what New Zealand’s latest report shows.
Have you noticed more people out and about on your daily walk during this level four lockdown compared to the first, in autumn of 2020? It’s probably because there are more people out and about this time round. That’s according to Google’s latest Covid-19 Community Mobility Report, released late yesterday, which shows more New Zealanders have been more active in certain areas during the first days of this lockdown than they were in April of 2020. The data compares our mobility to a baseline, and shows a steep drop-off in many areas, but not quite so much as during that first big national lockdown. And it’s notably different in one specific area.
Back then, we published a wildly popular story analysing the reports, which Google creates by using anonymised cellphone location data to track the aggregate movement of billions of people, therefore showing how much their behaviour changes in response to Covid-19 restrictions. It was read by over 100,000 people, curious to know what the rest of us were up to. It was clear from the April 2020 report that New Zealanders across the country responded to the level four restrictions zealously, with a 91% drop in retail and recreation traffic from the baseline, a 78% reduction in the use of parks, and a 54% reduction in grocery and pharmacy traffic.
During the present lockdown, the reductions in traffic aren’t quite as intense, with an 81% drop in retail and recreation traffic, a 65% drop in park use, and a mere 21% drop in grocery and pharmacy use.
The trends are very similar across New Zealand’s regions, with Covid-clustered Auckland showing a 79% drop in retail and recreation traffic compared with 89% last time, and a 24% drop in grocery and pharmacy compared with 55% in the April 2020 lockdown. Interestingly, park usage in Auckland has seen a similar 70% drop across both lockdowns.
In Wellington, however, park usage is down a mere 32% compared with 63% in the first lockdown, while Canterbury in the Covid-free South Island has seen park traffic drop 59% compared to 83% last time.
All this raises a lot of questions, of course. Are New Zealanders not taking this as seriously as the first lockdown? Why are there way more people at the supermarket and pharmacy this time round, and should it be a cause for concern?
Epidemiologist Michael Baker told The Spinoff that some forms of heightened mobility were more worrying than others, but said that much higher rates of mask use could be a reason why there were far more people at the supermarket.
“I think universal mask use should make those environments considerably safer if someone’s infectious, so I think that’s a real plus.”
While Baker couldn’t say whether the lower reduction in park traffic was more risky – it could be, depending on whether people were taking precautions – he said that changes between this lockdown and the first one could be due to the fact that people feel they are more familiar with the foe.
“People may feel this time round that it’s a slightly more known threat, and have slightly adjusted their priorities. We do make some judgments… people perhaps feel that it’s good to get out and get some exercise, but they are hopefully taking precautions.”
The higher retail and recreation activity suggests more such businesses are operating contactlessly during this lockdown, and having their staff come in to process “essential” online orders and deliveries. There have been reports of retailers taking a much more expansive view of “essential” items for delivery than the law provides, which might explain the discrepancy. Yet according to Google’s data, the amount of people going to their workplaces has dropped 55%, not far off the 59% drop in the first lockdown. Likewise, the amount of residential traffic – or people staying at home – has roughly stayed the same between the two lockdowns, 22% more in the first lockdown, and 26% more this time.
All in all, the fresh data suggests that as a nation we’re not locked down quite so tightly as we were during the lockdown of March-May 2020. But according to Baker, that doesn’t necessarily mean our chances of once again achieving elimination are diminished – provided that those higher numbers attending supermarkets and parks are assiduously masking up.