March 6, 2021

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‘How far is local?’ What our Google habits tell us about our response to Covid lockdown rules

3 min read

“How far is local?” sounds like an existential musing, perhaps the title of a particularly cerebral novel or a B-side to The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?”

However, on the back of the Prime Minister being spotted cycling in London’s Olympic Park, seven miles from his home, thousands of people took to Google last week to ascertain the precise nature of “locality”– at least in the context of lockdown rules.

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Indeed, so invested was the public in the saga that search for “Boris Johnson bike” surpassed even the popular evergreen query “Boris Johnson children”.

Our confusion around the exact restrictions is reflected in the volume of people searching “how far can I cycle” and “how far can I travel for exercise”, as well as such queries as “can I drive to go for a walk” and myriad variants of “can you meet one person/someone/a friend outside”.

‘Can I go fishing?’

Throughout the pandemic, ever-evolving systems of Covid restrictions have fuelled these constant, often very specific searches around what we can and cannot do – information which, despite Priti Patel’s insistence that “the rules are clear,” isn’t always easy to find.

Interest is most pronounced around major announcements and news flashpoints such as the PM’s cycling expedition, which unfortunately coincided with a week of dire warnings to rule-breakers from police and Government alike.

24th September 1951: Angler William Morris fishing for salmon on the River Glass in Inverness-shire. Wild salmon are an important part of Scotland's tourist industry and many anglers visit the country every year. The fish are also farmed for export and are renowned for their quality. (Photo by George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images)
There is a surge of interest around fishing rules whenever the Covid restrictions change (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When new rules are unveiled there is always a major spike for “can I go fishing,” presumably due to its position in a probably-not-exercise-but-very-socially-distanced grey area, which is why the Government hasn’t ever really published any proper rules for it.

Similarly, occupations which fall just outside the headline measures prompt a flurry of search from workers concerned about lockdown’s impact. “Can cleaners work in lockdown” leads the way, with mobile hairdressers and tradesmen just behind – the spike in search for “are dog groomers open” reflects how quickly one’s attitude to what constitutes “essential work” changes when accosted by an overtly shaggy hound.

Testing the limits of the Covid rules?

It’s possible, of course, that people are testing the limits of the rules with these queries, seeking to go against what Matt Hancock refers to as “the spirit” of the measures. However, consistently high search for “fines for breaking lockdown” indicates that many are simply wary of inadvertently getting on the wrong side of the law.

This anxiety is demonstrated by the significant spike in search for “will lockdown get tougher”, with the English particularly anxious to find out “will nurseries close”, and the potential shutdown of construction foremost in Scottish minds. And last week, tens of thousands of Brits googled “support bubbles” amid fears that single-household links could be banned.

Ultimately, it’s fitting that the standout search query around the Covid rules is one that occupies much of our waking thoughts: “When will lockdown end?”

‘Why does Derby smell like sick?’

The South East suffered a collective shock last Tuesday when a bomb-like sound echoed through the region as RAF jets smashed the sound barrier overhead.

It led to more than 100,000 people googling “sonic boom” – as well as plenty opting for the more straightforward “loud noise in Essex today”.

Local atmospheric disturbances always prompt interest, as demonstrated last month by tens of thousands of Scots searching “thundersnow” when Edinburgh was woken by dramatic storms – but nothing piques the nation’s curiosity quite like an unusual smell.

The finest example came in the East Midlands in 2018, when the level of interest made national news in the form of articles attempting to answer: “Why does Derby smell like sick?

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