How job types and industries are influencing regional differences in the UK’s lockdown

Brighton has a high population of professional workers, and saw a large decrease in workplace-related mobility. (Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

As the UK locked down amid the coronavirus outbreak, theories abounded about why some parts of the country changed their routines more quickly and to a greater extent than others.

Anonymised mobile phone data from Google shows that the amount people moved around for work dropped by more than 60% in Brighton, Bath, York and Edinburgh by 11 April. Those figures were notably lower, however, for Peterborough (47%) and Middlesbrough (50.1%).

As in the United States and France, many have sought to explain different regions' behaviours in terms of age, unemployment rates, or politics. Some in the UK have even looked to the Brexit referendum as a signal for a place's willingness to adhere to distancing guidelines.

But the degree to which Britons have cut down on travel to work might have more to do with their job than their politics or their opinion of the lockdown.

Chart showing remain vote against reduced workplace mobility

The list of places that have seen lower drops in workplace mobility also have a higher proportion of residents doing manual labour, including sectors such as manufacturing and transport. Such jobs may not be possible to do at home, and might also be more likely to be deemed essential during a lockdown.

Conversely, areas that have seen the biggest drops in workplace-based movement tend to have more white-collar, office-based roles – jobs that might be easier to do at home or considered non-essential.

Edinburgh and Brighton, for instance, have some of the highest levels of professional workers out of all the UK areas for which Google provides data. Around 31% of people in those cities are employed in professional occupations, compared to 17% in Middlesbrough and 16% in Peterborough.

On the other hand only 1% of employees in Edinburgh and 3% in York are process, plant and machine operatives, according to the latest statistics from the UK's Office for National Statistics (ONS). That compares to 8% in Middlesbrough and 9% in Peterborough.

The charts below show how the proportion of workers in certain occupations relate to the levels of shutdown in UK towns, cities and counties.

Each dot on a graph represents a local authority, county or urban area in the UK. The vertical axis shows how much workplace mobility has declined – the higher the dot is, the greater the lockdown.

The horizontal axis shows the percentage of people in that area that work in each job or industry – the further to the right the dot is, the more the area relies on these workers as part of its overall “job mix”.

Chart showing reduced workplace mobility for occupations

The chart below shows the relationships for all types of job, ordered from the strongest positive relationship to the strongest negative relationship. The trend is strongest for those at the beginning and end, and weakest for those in the middle.

Chart showing reduced workplace mobility for occupations

As well as looking at individual job types, we can apply the same analysis across broad industries. Again there appears to be a relationship between the levels of employment in these industries and the level of workplace lockdown.

Places with a higher proportion of people working in professional scientific or technical jobs have seen larger drops in workplace activity, as have areas with more people in IT, service industries and finance.

On the other hand, places with a greater number of people working in manufacturing have seen lower levels of workplace shutdown.

Chart showing reduced workplace mobility for industries

The chart chimes with recent data from the ONS showing that people in professional occupations were among the most likely to work from home – with 45% saying they had done so at some point in the past.

Process, plant and machine operatives, however, were among the least likely: just 6% said they had worked from home in the past.

There are some significant caveats with the data, meaning we should be conservative about drawing too many conclusions.

Not every job or industry has seen a relation with workplace lockdown. There doesn’t seem to be a relationship, for example, between how many people in admin or secretarial roles work in an area and how much its workplaces have shut down. The same applies to people in managerial roles, and sales and customer service, as well as most broad industry categories. And the analysis doesn’t control for other things that might be affecting the lockdown, such as people’s age or education levels.

Statistics on occupations at local areas haven’t been updated since 2017, so it’s also possible that the jobs landscape has changed in some places since then.

It will be difficult to fully tell the story of lockdown until we have detailed survey data showing people’s behaviours. The data we do have seems to follow the idea that cities reliant on people who can work from home have been more successful at reducing the amount that people are moving around their city for work.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.