Patterns of COVID-19 policy response described in a new academic paper

A sign inside the Blavatnik School reminds to keep distancing

Photo: John Cairns

A new peer-reviewed article about the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker was published in Nature Human Behaviour last week.

'A global panel database of pandemic policies' describes intriguing patterns of global COVID-19 government responses during 2020 and seeks to demonstrate what kinds of questions the data can help tackle.

Starting with an introduction about the tracker and explaining individual indicators, data collection process and methodology, the article moves on to focus on suggesting the ways in which the data can be used (in some cases, has been used) by health policy experts and data scientists to make sense of the effects of governments responses to COVID-19. Crucially, it highlights patterns in the timing of policy adoption and subsequent policy easing and reimposition, and illustrates how the data can be combined with behavioural and epidemiological indicators.

Some key points revealed in the paper:

  • There is a surprising degree of commonality across countries in government responses to COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic. Most governments moved to a high level of response within a two-week period around the middle of March – in many cases, ramping up the policy response before having experienced their tenth COVID-19-related death and in some cases even preceding their tenth recorded case. This indicates that countries may have observed and reacted to what their neighbours were doing. The World Health Organization’s guidance to governments is tailored to the local progression of an infectious disease rather than potential herd behaviour, so these findings could inform the coordination of responses in the future.
  • When looking at specific policies and the order in which they were introduced, there are strong similarities across countries. For example, the chance that a randomly drawn country will have introduced public information campaigns, international travel controls and testing policies within 20 days of the first government response of any policy type is more than 50%. Within 10 days, that chance increases to 40%, and within 2 months to more than 90%.
  • Policy reversal also shows interesting patterns that are shared among countries. For example, during the initial two months of easing of measures, while closure and containment policies were loosened, economic support policies and health policies were maintained at countries’ individual maximum strengths.

An important application of the data is to understand how policies relate to human behaviour. A number of studies have used the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker and similar data to try to estimate the effect of policies on behaviour and the spread of the disease. The data suggests that there could be a strong association between the government tracker indices and measures of behaviour. For example, increases in the broadest index of government responses can be associated with increases in the percentage of time spent in residences, as well as with decreases in the frequency of visits to groceries and pharmacies, workplaces, transit stations, places for retail and recreation, and parks.

Thomas Hale, Associate Professor at the Blavatnik School, is a co-author of the paper and lead of the project since its inception, and said: “This paper highlights the potential of the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker data – combined with other datasets – to understand the role of individual policies, capture important changes in behaviour in response to government action, and more in general to provide researchers and policymakers alike with ways to tackle questions on the effects of government response.”

The associations presented in the paper are merely suggestive; identifying causal effects of government policies is not straightforward. The ‘Discussion’ section of the paper looks at the methodological considerations and limitations of the data, especially when bringing together the government tracker data with additional data sources. However, even within these limitations, the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker is proving essential in understanding what policies (or combination of policies) have the best chance of succeeding in the fight against the virus.

About the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker

The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker captures government policies related to closure and containment, health and economic policy for more than 180 countries, plus several countries’ subnational jurisdictions – including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Brazil – from 1 January 2020 to the present.

The data is available for free to anyone who want to explore the effects of policy measures on the spread of COVID-19 cases and deaths, as well as on economic and social welfare. The dataset is constantly expanding and powered by a team of more than 400 volunteers around the world, who work to collect data in real time. 

'A global panel database of pandemic policies' was published on 8 March in Nature Human Behaviour and authored by Thomas Hale, Noam Angrist, Rafael Goldszmidt, Beatriz Kira, Anna Petherick, Toby Phillips, Samuel Webster, Emily Cameron-Blake, Laura Hallas, Saptarshi Majumdar and Helen Tatlow.