Chart of the week: From horribilis in 2020 to mirabilis in 2021?

Each week we present analysis of data in chart form to illustrate some key issues and invite discussion. In our final chart of this year, we use Google Trends data to take a light-hearted look at what's been occupying us during 2020 – finding that the coronavirus has dominated our internet searching habits, like everything else...

Chart of the week

Published: 23/12/2020

As anni horribiles go, 2020 must rank with the most horrible.

By 21 December, there were over 75,000 deaths recorded in the UK, and Covid-19 has had a terrible impact on our daily lives, the health service and the economy.

Looking back at our googling history over the year reveals some of our concerns as the pandemic developed, lockdowns were imposed and daily reports tracked the toll of the disease on people’s lives.

At the beginning of March, with reported deaths across the UK standing at less than 10, the nation’s internet searches revealed what could be seen (or rather, not seen) in supermarkets… the must-have household item in times of national distress: toilet paper.

Google searches for toilet paper peaked in mid-March. But breadmaking had been bubbling under too, and yeast and flour became scarce as many of us consulted Google on how to bake bread. Twitter started to fill up with proud photos of people’s sourdough successes.

And as the debate about the need for mask wearing intensified, the public turned to the internet to discover the new-found art of constructing their own face coverings. Google mask-making searches reached a peak at the end of May but started to decline as pharmacies and corner shops started to secure supplies.

By September, however, searches for toilet paper, breadmaking and masks were put in the shade by searches about Covid-19 testing. Following the return of holidaymakers to the UK, and children to school, demand for Covid tests outstripped supply by a factor of three to four.

And then came reports in early November of possibly effective vaccines for Covid-19. Pfizer and BioNTec press-released headline efficacy for their vaccine of over 90%. On 2 December, the MHRA announced approval of this vaccine, again prompting more internet searches in that week. By 21 December around 500,000 people in the UK had received their first vaccine dose.

As the year draws to a close, the UK is facing tighter restrictions to curb a renewed surge in cases in many areas.  But as we go into 2021, the roll-out of the vaccine provides a brighter, if not *quite* mirabilis note.


Data notes

  1. Google Trends data, downloaded 17 December 2020.
  2. Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart: a value of 100 is the peak popularity for “Covid-19 vaccine” over the previous 12 months. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular.  Graph is not shown where there was not enough data for the term.