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People became less risky in lockdown, research reveals

10 February 2021

The UK population spent more time doing activities that were less risky during the first national lockdown in May and June 2020, followed by a slight, though not complete reversal in August 2020, new research from UCL Institute of Education (IOE) reveals.

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Academics from the Centre for Time Use Research (CTUR) in the Social Research Institute examined population-representative UK time-use diary data conducted both pre- and in real time during full lockdown, and again following the easing of social restrictions.

The research, published in The Public Library of Science ONE, finds that people shifted from more to less risky daily behaviour patterns between the pre-pandemic pattern and full lockdown in May and June 2020. This was followed by a reversion, although not a complete reversal, of those patterns in August 2020 following the end of the first lockdown.

Less-risky activities tend to be those that take place at home either alone or just with members of your own household, such as watching TV, eating, and sleeping. More risky activities include taking public transport, working away from home and visiting pubs, shops and cinemas, among other things. Riskiness was estimated based on the location, the social context i.e. who the diarist recorded being with during the activity, the nature of the activity itself e.g. visiting the cinema implies the presence of other, non-household, individuals, and the usual location of the activity and whether it is indoors and enclosed or open-air. (e.g. indoors and enclosed, vs open-air). 

The researchers found that in 2016 71% of a person’s day was devoted to activities in the lowest risk category, however, this increased to 88% of the day in May and June 2020, before slightly decreasing to 82% by late August 2020. People spent 20% of the day conducting activity viewed as high-risk in 2016, which decreased to 7% in May-June 2020, increasing again to 11% in August.

Self-care activities including sleep, personal care, and eating meals at home increased from an average of 10 hours and 9 minutes per day in 2016 to 11 hours 14 minutes per day in May-June 2020, then decreased to 10 and a half hours per day in August 2020.

Unpaid work tasks done at home such as cooking, cleaning, child-care, and household maintenance, increased from 1 hour 40 minutes to 2 hours 18 minutes during full lockdown, then decreased to 2 hours following the easing of restrictions, while home leisure activities increased from 4 and a half hours per day in 2016 to 5 and a half hours in full lockdown, then returning to 5 hours and 8 minutes per day by August. Paid home working increased dramatically from 42 to 116 minutes per day at full lockdown but remained almost at the same level following the relaxation of social restrictions, at 111 minutes per day in August 2020.

Project co-lead Professor Oriel Sullivan said:

“In this project we hoped to answer the question: What do people actually do in response to restrictions on their activities and social contacts imposed over the course of the pandemic? This set of data is, we believe, unique in providing time use diary information in real time on changing behavior in the UK in response to each major change in social restrictions. Time use diary information of this type, collected in real time across the course of the pandemic, will provide policy-makers with information to assess and quantify changes in daily behaviors following the imposition of social restrictions, and the impact they are likely to have on overall behavioral-associated risks.”

The researchers also found that at-home activities done with others from a different household dropped to 7 minutes per day at full lockdown before rising to 13 minutes per day in August 2020. This is in contrast to 22 minutes per day in 2016. 

The highest risk category includes activities such as leisure or care-giving done away from home with others not from the same household, and all paid work done at the workplace. Leisure or care-giving done away from home declined significantly from 126 to 48 minutes per day (2016 vs May-June 2020), followed by a return to 80 minutes per day by late August 2020. Paid work in the workplace dropped from 2 hours and 39 minutes per day to 48 minutes per day between 2016 and full lockdown, with a rise following the easing of social restrictions back up to 1 hour and 21 minutes per day by late August.

The researchers are undertaking further work, based on new waves of the data, on how risky activities varied between age, gender and lockdowns.

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