Population disruption: estimating changes in population distribution in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic

Status: Paper under peer review | First online: 22-06-2021 | Last update: 22-06-2021

This study has not yet been peer reviewed.


Mobility data have demonstrated major changes in human movement patterns in response to COVID-19 and associated interventions in many countries. This can involve sub-national redistribution, short-term relocations as well as international migration.


In this paper, we combine detailed location data from Facebook measuring the location of approximately 6 million daily active Facebook users in 5km2 tiles in the UK with census-derived population estimates to measure population mobility and redistribution. We provide time-varying population estimates and assess spatial population changes with respect to population density and four key reference dates in 2020 (First lockdown, End of term, Beginning of term, Christmas).


We show how the timing and magnitude of observed population changes can impact the size of epidemics using a deterministic model of COVID-19 transmission. We estimate that between March 2020 and March 2021, the total population of the UK has declined and we identify important spatial variations in this population change, showing that low-density areas have experienced lower population decreases than urban areas. We estimate that, for the top 10% highest population tiles, the population has decreased by 6.6%. Further, we provide evidence that geographic redistributions of population within the UK coincide with dates of non-pharmaceutical interventions including lockdowns and movement restrictions, as well as seasonal patterns of migration around holiday dates.


The methods used in this study reveal significant changes in population distribution at high spatial and temporal resolutions that have not previously been quantified by available demographic surveys in the UK.

Read the pre-print here. Population estimates for 2019 Local Authority Districts are available here.