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A Year On: The March of Covid Chaos

Liz Gerard looks back to this time last year during which the UK Government laid the foundations for one of the highest rates of Coronavirus deaths in the world

Ilustration: Byline Times

A Year OnThe March of Covid Chaos

Liz Gerard looks back to this time last year during which the UK Government laid the foundations for one of the highest rates of Coronavirus deaths in the world

With the Government’s 2021 Roadmap to Freedom published and the vaccination programme going well, the UK may have reasons to be more cheerful. But with more than 125,000 deaths Liz Gerard is disinclined to forgive or forget the missteps, missed warnings and misleading statements along the way. Here she looks back to March 2020 when Prime Minister Boris Johnson was promising to “turn the tide” within 12 weeks. Illustrated by contemporaneous articles from Byline Times.

Sunday, 1 March

Boris Johnson visits a Public Health England testing lab and says: “We have a great plan to tackle the spread of coronavirus…it is something this country really has the resources to deal with. We have state of the art testing facilities, we have a fantastic NHS. Believe me, we are going to beat it.”

*Covid deaths: 0.

*Source of Covid Fatalities: Public Health England daily updates, including figures from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Monday, 2 March

Johnson chairs Cobra meeting on coronavirus. Matt Hancock has led five weekly meetings on the virus since late January. This is the first Johnson has attended.

Johnson expects “thousands of cases” and says we must wash our hands while singing Happy Birthday twice.

Professor David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says: “A great concern is that there could be clusters of infection in care homes for the elderly.”

Covid deaths: 0

Tuesday, 3 March

Johnson holds first Downing St press briefing. Asked if people should stop shaking hands, he says: “I’m shaking hands continuously. I was at a hospital the other night, where I think there were a few coronavirus patients, and I shook hands with everybody.”

The Queen wears a pair of long gloves for an investiture.

Covid deaths: 0

Wednesday, 4 March

The Government stops publishing daily updates on where new cases of Covid have been identified, prompting protests about undue secrecy.

Preparations are under way to allow 15,000 recently retired doctors to return to the NHS.

The premiere of the new James Bond film is postponed to November.

Covid deaths: 0

Thursday, 5 March

A 75-year-old woman is the first person officially recorded as dying in Britain with Covid. 

Anyone who has been to northern Italy in the past fortnight is told to quarantine for two weeks.

Johnson says that “there is a theory” that we should take the virus “on the chin” and let it spread through the population. He calls for balance and wants to take “all measures” to minimise the peak.

Matt Hancock says the government is in talks with supermarkets on getting food to the vulnerable.

Daily updates of where new cases of Covid have been found are to resume.

Covid deaths: 1

Friday, 6 March

Health officials advise people to ask their bosses if they can work from home. Families are told to stock up with a week’s food in case they have to isolate.

Supermarkets say they are not in talks with the government on food deliveries and do not have the capacity to deliver to everyone in need. Shop staff work round the clock to restock shelves with cleaning products, loo rolls and painkillers. Profiteers ask £120 for a bottle of hand sanitiser.

Scientists seek urgent funding for facilities to make vaccines once one is developed. Johnson promises £46m of foreign aid cash for vaccine research.

Covid deaths: 1; total: 2

Saturday, 7 March

Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds attend England’s Six Nations rugby match against Wales at Twickenham, where they shake hands with other spectators.

An Italian doctor emails colleagues across Europe to say that Covid has taken hospitals to the brink of collapse and begs other countries not to underestimate the threat.

UK Doctors express concerns about hospital capacity and staffing. The UK has 2.5 beds per 1,000 people, the lowest in Europe. 

Supermarkets start rationing some goods.

Covid deaths: 0; total: 2

Sunday, 8 March

The Sunday Times reports that Whitehall is working on the assumption that 100,000 people will die of Covid or seasonal flu. A cabinet minister says the figure is “about right”.

The Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to Northern Italy.

Two Milan professors urge other countries to expand their ICUs, as 10% of Covid cases require critical care. NHS England says: “As well as our critical-care beds, we have five world-leading highly specialised units and 19 trusts able to step up specialist capacity.”

Johnson accedes to a request that there should be no hand-shaking at the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey. 

Covid deaths: 1; total: 3

Monday, 9 March

World markets suffer their worst day since the financial crisis of 2008. 

Johnson says it would be “counter-productive” to follow other countries in cancelling mass events and shutting schools. Chief medical officer Chris Whitty says that “within the next 10 to 14 days” people with a cough are likely to be told to stay at home for a week. For now, the official advice remains “wash your hands”.

Sports governing bodies are called to a meeting at the DCMS. They conclude there is “no rationale” for cancelling fixtures or excluding fans.

Covid deaths: 4; total: 7

Tuesday, 10 March

The Cheltenham Festival goes ahead with 60,000 in attendance. Deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries says the argument for cancelling major events is not necessarily supported by science: “The virus will not survive very long outside.”

Lancet editor Richard Horton says the government is playing roulette with the public and calls for immediate social distancing and closure policies.

Covid deaths: 0; total: 7

Wednesday, 11 March

The World Health Organisation declares the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.

Health minister Nadine Dorries and five other MPs are in isolation with the virus.

Public Health England promises to “ramp up” testing to 10,000 a day with results within 24 hours. At the moment it can carry out about 2,000, with results taking up to nine days.

In the Budget, Rishi Sunak suspends business rates for small firms. He promises £5bn for the NHS and £7bn to help businesses weather the pandemic. Borrowing will rise by almost £100bn more than planned.

The Bank of England cuts interest rates and warns of a “large and sharp” shock to the economy.

Covid deaths: 2; total: 9

Thursday, 12 March

Johnson says coronavirus is the worst public health crisis for a generation and warns: “Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

He tells schools not to organise trips abroad; the elderly should not go on cruises; and anyone with a cough or temperature should stay at home for a week and keep away from relatives. He says lockdown wouldn’t work. It is better to “let the virus spread in a controlled way”.

Testing is to be limited to hospital patients with respiratory problems and health workers. 

Chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance estimates that up to 10,000 may already be infected. He 

says: “It’s not possible to stop everyone getting it. It’s also not desirable because you want some immunity in the population.”

Robert Peston tweets that the government’s “entire strategy” is designed to achieve “herd immunity” to prevent NHS collapse.

Scotland bans gatherings of more than 500. Football clubs call for the suspension of the Premier League.

The FTSE suffers its worst day since 1987.

Covid deaths: 1; total: 10

Friday, 13 March

Hours after ruling out tougher restrictions, the government draws up plans to ban mass gatherings.

Vallance says 60% of the population would need to catch Covid to develop herd immunity and prevent a second wave in the winter.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, now chair of the health select committee, calls for social distancing and points to travel restrictions, school closures and quarantining of the elderly in the Far East. He says “the clock is ticking”. Richard Horton of the Lancet says the UK is on the edge of an avoidable calamity.

WHO says Europe is now the epicentre of the pandemic and urges every country to act decisively. The director general expresses concern about the end of testing and contact tracing in the UK, saying: “You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is. Find, isolate, test and treat every case.”

The Premier League suspends all matches until April 4. Other sporting fixtures are postponed.

Local elections are delayed, hours after Johnson said they would go ahead.

Supermarkets are overwhelmed with online orders and say customers may have to wait a week for deliveries.

The Queen cancels public engagements for a week.

Covid deaths: 18; total: 28

Saturday, 14 March

Downing St denies that it has – or ever had – a policy of seeking herd immunity.

NHS bosses are given permission to buy up private hospital beds. Up to a million routine operations are to be postponed. Health staff who have had close contact with infected patients are told to carry on working unless they show symptoms, reversing previous advice that they should stay at home.

Supermarkets appeal for calm as panic buyers rampage through stores.

Covid deaths: 15; total: 43

Sunday, 15 March

The Prime Minister rejects an invitation to join an EU-wide procurement scheme for ventilators and instead appeals to manufacturers such as Rolls-Royce, and JCB to transform their production lines to build ventilators as part of a “great national effort”.

Supermarkets issue a joint letter urging customers to be considerate.

Covid deaths: 22; total: 65

Monday, 16 March

The Prime Minister says the time has come for “drastic action”. Everyone must avoid pubs, restaurants and “non-essential” contact. People should work from home where possible; over-70s and those with health conditions must end all social contact for around 12 weeks “from next weekend”.

A PHE briefing seen by The Guardian says health service labs can’t cope with the demand for tests, so only the very seriously ill in hospital, care homes or prisons will be tested. Even NHS staff will not get a test. The WHO director-general says: “We have a simple message to all countries: test, test, test.”

Customers find they have a six-week wait for groceries as supermarket websites are overwhelmed and shelves in store are stripped bare.

West End theatres close.

Covid deaths: 16; total: 81

Tuesday, 17 March

The Chancellor announces a £350bn package of loans and grants to help businesses and mortgage holidays for home-buyers.

Sir Patrick Vallance tells MPs that 20,000 deaths would be “a good outcome”.

Johnson asks industry to produce 30,000 ventilators within two weeks in a conference call in which he jokes the drive could be called “Operation last gasp”.

Hospitals are told to suspend non-urgent operations for at least three months and to “urgently discharge all inpatients who are medically fit to leave”. This includes some who would go to care homes. 

Doctors are told they do not need to wear full protective equipment when caring for Covid patients.

Covid deaths: 34; total: 115

Wednesday, 18 March

Gavin Williamson says that schools are to close from Friday. There will be no public exams this summer.

Boris Johnson claims that the UK is “far ahead” of other countries in testing huge numbers of people. “We’re massively increasing testing from 5,000 to 10,000 a day…and we’re moving up to 25,000.”

Housing minister Robert Jenrick promises that emergency laws will prevent landlords from evicting tenants for up to three months.

Covid deaths: 43; total: 158

Thursday, 19 March

Boris Johnson says Britain can “turn the tide” of coronavirus in 12 weeks. He promises to “ramp up” testing to 250,000 a day.

The Government tables emergency legislation to give police power to detain people suspected of having Covid and to impose £1,000 fines on anyone refusing a test. 

Dominic Raab says the Foreign Office is “striving every sinew” to help a million people who are trying to get home to Britain after complaints that diplomatic services are not offering prompt help.

A £3bn fund is to be used to move elderly people from hospital to the community. The Department of Health publishes detailed discharge advice. There is no requirement to run a Covid test on everyone being sent home, but if a test has been conducted, the results should be included in documentation the patients take with them.

The Bank of England cuts its base rate to 0.1%, the lowest ever.

Rural communities urge city dwellers to stay away as Londoners start to decamp to second homes. They say their health services and village shops cannot cope with the influx.

Covid deaths: 36; total: 194

Friday, 20 March

Johnson orders a total shutdown of pubs, clubs, restaurants and leisure facilities from closing time tonight. He begs people to resist the temptation for a last night out.

Rishi Sunak announces a furlough scheme to pay 80% of the wages of people who cannot work because of the virus.

Harrods, the Arcadia group, Selfridges, Ikea and other stores close.

Annemarie Plas, a Dutch expatriate yoga teacher asks the country to #clapforcarers at 8pm on Thursday.

Pubs and bars are packed out.

Covid deaths: 56; total: 250

Saturday, 21 March

About 1.5m people judged most at risk of dying from Covid are sent letters telling them to stay at home in isolation for three months.

Medics complain that a lack of basic PPE is putting them at risk. The Health Care Supply Association tweets an appeal to DIY stores to donate visors and glasses.

GPs ask elderly patients to sign forms forfeiting the right to hospital treatment for Covid.

Environment Secretary George Eustice urges people to stop hoarding as shoppers are estimated to have stockpiled £1bn of food.

More stores, including John Lewis, shut.

Covid deaths: 35; total: 285

Sunday, 22 March

Parks and beauty spots are full of people taking advantage of the sunshine. Snowdonia reports its busiest day ever. Boris Johnson says that curfews and travel bans will be imposed if people don’t start acting responsibly.

Robert Jenrick says millions of antibody tests to tell if people have had Covid will be available within weeks.

The Sunday Times reports that at a meeting last month, Dominic Cummings’s approach was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”. Downing Street rejects the story as “highly defamatory”.

Covid deaths: 74; total: 359

Monday, 23 March

Boris Johnson addresses the nation to say: “You must stay at home”. Non-essential shops, leisure facilities, libraries, gyms and churches are shut; social events are banned. Lockdown will last at least three weeks.

Londoners rushing to holiday homes are ordered to stay in their primary residence.

Emergency legislation giving ministers the power to act without reference to Parliament passes through all its Commons stages without a vote, in spite of concerns about civil liberties and fears for the disabled and those at risk of domestic violence. The laws will be reviewed every six months.

Train franchises are suspended, effectively nationalising the railways.

Aviation, car and medical equipment manufacturers form a consortium promising to produce 5,000 ventilators within a fortnight and a further 25,000 “in a matter of months”.

Covid deaths: 149; total: 508

Tuesday, 24 March

Matt Hancock says nearly 12,000 retired NHS staff have agreed to go back to work and announces the creation of a 250,000-strong “corps of volunteer responders” to take supplies to people shielding.

The Doctors Association says a widespread lack of PPE has left members feeling abandoned.

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth and Jeremy Hunt call for a return to testing and contact tracing. Hancock says “we are ramping up” and that 3.5m finger-prick antibody tests will become available via Amazon “very soon”. He also says the Army is converting the ExCel conference centre in London into a 4,000-bed “Nightingale” hospital that will open next week. 

James Dyson tells workers that he has a government order for 10,000 ventilators.

With Tube trains crammed with workers, No 10 is accused of spreading confusion over who is allowed to go out to work. Hancock attacks the Mayor of London for cutting back Underground services.

Covid deaths: 186; total: 694

Wednesday, 25 March

Prince Charles tests positive for coronavirus.

Parliament shuts down for a month.

Priti Patel wants to halt flights into Britain from Covid-hit countries, but fails to persuade the Prime Minister.

Covid deaths: 183; total: 877

Thursday, 26 March

Rishi Sunak offers help for 3.8m self-employed to match that for other workers, with the promise of 80% of income up to £2,500 a month.

NHS workers from outside Europe ask ministers to waive the £400 immigrant surcharge they have to pay to use the health service. The fee is due to rise to £624 under plans announced in the Budget and will apply to EU migrants from January.

Hospital trusts say they have major concerns about when they can expect the 30,000 ventilators promised by industrialists. Boris Johnson is criticised for failing to join the EU procurement scheme when given the chance. Advisers claim an email went astray.

The Government backtracks on promises that antibody tests are imminent as manufacturers say they have not yet been proven to work. Officials admit that the “3.5m orders” announced by Matt Hancock on Sunday were only “in principle”.

Millions stand on their doorsteps to applaud NHS workers.

Covid deaths: 284; total: 1,161

Friday, 27 March

Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Chris Whitty all test positive for Covid. Johnson says in a video message that he has only mild symptoms and will continue to lead the “national fightback” from isolation.

Dominic Cummings is seen running from Downing Street. He goes home to see his wife, who is feeling ill, returns to work, then goes home again, before driving to Durham with his wife and four-year-old son, arriving at his father’s farm around midnight.

Volunteers are sought for human trials for a coronavirus vaccine being developed at Oxford University.

Brussels hits back at the Government’s claim that Britain did not join the EU ventilator programme because of an email mix-up, saying British officials attended several meetings were it was discussed. Several specialist companies say their offers to supply ventilators were ignored.

Covid deaths: 294; total: 1,455

Saturday, 28 March

The Guardian reports that the Department of Health rejected a 2016 Nervtag committee recommendation that it should stockpile visors and goggles for use by anyone in close contact with patients in a flu pandemic. The department concluded that it would be too expensive “with a very low likelihood of cost benefit”.

Doctors outside London complain that they are having to wait four days for Covid test results.

Care homes say they have almost run out of gloves, masks and aprons.

Covid deaths: 214; total: 1,669

Sunday, 29 March

Michael Gove and Jenny Harries say restrictions may have to last six months, raising the prospect of schools not returning until the autumn. 

Matt Hancock claims to have hit the target of 10,000 tests a day. Official figures show that fewer than 7,000 were carried out yesterday.

Care homes say that PPE packages promised by the Government consist of 300 “inadequate” masks, with no aprons, gloves, visors or sanitiser. These are supposed to last a week, but are used in a single day.

The Sun and Sunday Telegraph publish opinion polls showing “soaring” public confidence in Boris Johnson’s handling of the epidemic, with 67% thinking he is doing well. The Sun says: “Most people say the Government has hardly put a foot wrong.”

The Sunday Telegraph reports that the NHS failed a three-day exercise in 2016, which concluded that the country would be overwhelmed by pandemic, with a shortage of critical care beds, ventilators, PPE and mortuary space. The “terrifying” Cygnus findings were not made public.

Covid deaths: 374; total: 2,043

Monday, 30 March

Downing Street confirms that Dominic Cummings is self-isolating. It does not say where.

Police are accused of heavy-handed enforcement of lockdown rules. Lord Sumption says Britain is in danger of becoming a police state.

Dominc Raab spends £75m chartering flights to bring 300,000 stranded Britons home.

The Government blames a shortage of key chemicals for the delay in increasing testing capacity. 

A quarter of doctors are reported to be off sick. Nurses say they are having to wear unsuitable PPE – or none at all.

The Mercedes Formula 1 team collaborates with University College London to develop a breathing aid that could mean fewer patients need to go into intensive care. The Government orders 10,000 ventilators from the industrial consortium.

Covid deaths: 383; total: 2,425

Tuesday, 31 March

The Office for National Statistics releases the first data about coronavirus deaths outside of hospitals. The ONS says the overall death toll could be 25% higher than previous official figures, which count only deaths in hospital.

Care homes say they are at breaking point as coronavirus is identified in more than half of them, with residents dying and many staff off sick.

Matt Hancock scraps a rule that reserves 85% of Covid tests for patients, removing the limit on how many NHS staff can be tested. 

Leading scientific institutions say their offers of laboratory facilities and machines to increase testing were rebuffed.

The Guardian gets hold of minutes that show that British officials took part in EU meetings that discussed bulk purchase of medical equipment on January 31, February 4, March 2 and March 13.

Durham police make contact with Dominic Cummings’s family and “remind” them of the rules about travelling during lockdown.

Covid deaths: 670; total: 3,095

This is an extract from The Pandemic: A Year of Mistakes?, edited by John Mair with contributions from Clive Myrie, Paul Connew, Vicky Pryce, Julian Petley et al, and published by Bite-size Books, £8.99

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