This comprehensive chronology reveals how the covid catastrophe unfolded in the UK, leading to the country’s death toll being the second highest in the world after the USA but with the death rate per million more than twice as bad.
A big rise of coronavirus cases in China results in Public Health England announcing it is moving the risk level from “very low” to “low”.
The Lancet says: “…the time to act is now.”
The Government’s COBRA crisis meeting keeps the risk level at “low”
Two people in the UK test positive for Covid-19.
An emergency committee of the World Health Organisation declares COVID-19 is a public health emergency of international concern and says it requires an immediate response, with extensive testing, tracing and isolating being essential.
Despite this urgent warning, Johnson fails to attend any of the Government’s COBRA crisis meetings set up to formulate a response to the virus until March 2.
First case in Spain
The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) finds that sustained community transmission of the virus should be expected.
Britain’s third patient tests positive for coronavirus and is later linked to five other cases in the UK.
Government statement: “On 10 February the Secretary of State [Hancock] declared that “the incidence or transmission of novel Coronavirus constituted a serious and imminent threat to public health”.
Eight cases in the UK.
The disease is named ‘covid-19. China has 44,653 cases and more than 1,000 dead. 393 cases outside China.
Despite evidence that travel restrictions in China restricted the outbreak to Wuhan, “SAGE concludes that neither travel restrictions within the UK nor prevention of mass gatherings would be effective in limiting transmission. There is no current evidence to suggest prevention of mass gatherings is effective in limiting transmission. Public actions in the absence of a mass gathering could have comparable impacts (e.g. watching a football match in a pub instead of a stadium as likely to spread the disease)”
Johnson ignores the warning of the “serious and imminent threat” and departs for a 12 day holiday at 115-room Chevening House.
First death in France.
SAGE says that Public Health England can cope with five new cases a week (requiring isolation of 800 contacts). Modelling suggests this capacity could be increased to 50 new cases a week (8,000 contact isolations).
SAGE worries about the effect of any restrictions and decides to “consider what conditions could lead to civil disturbance”.
Italy places almost 50,000 people in lockdown as cases top150.
WHO advises all countries with covid-19 cases to test, trace and quarantine – and to plan for the suspension of gatherings and the closure of schools and workplaces.
SAGE: “Interventions should seek to contain, delay and reduce the peak incidence of cases, in that order. Consideration of what is publicly perceived to work is essential in any decisions.”
SAGE “Reviewed covid-19 planning assumptions and advised that, in the reasonable worst case scenario, 80% of the UK population may become infected, with an overall 1% fatality rate in those infected. Only a proportion of those infected will experience symptoms. This fatality rate represents a reduction in the number of excess deaths relative to previous planning assumptions (in which a case fatality rate of 2-3% was based purely on identified cases rather than all infected individuals)”
((1% of 54.4 million, which is 80% of the population of about 68 million, results in 544,000 deaths.))
A coronavirus outbreak at an Edinburgh conference is thought to have gone on to result in at least 25 people contracting the virus.
The WHO raises the coronavirus alert to the highest level.
First case of person-to-person transmission in UK.
Johnson reappears after his holiday on the Friday to say the pandemic is the Government’s top priority and he will chair a meeting to deal with it – but not until Monday!
First USA death.
Prof Paul Cosford from Public Health England warns on “BBC Breakfast” that it is likely there will be widespread transmission of the virus in the UK.
Only now does Johnson chair his first COBRA meeting to discuss the strategy to combat the virus.
The Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) reports it is “highly likely that there is sustained transmission of COVID-19 in the UK at present.” SPI-M considers that without “stringent measures” 80% of the population would become infected, with an estimated death rate of 0.5% to 1%: - between 250,000 and 500,000 people.
There are now 36 cases in the UK.
A sub-committee of SAGE says the Government should “advise against greetings such as shaking hands and hugging” because it has additional value as a signal about the importance of hand hygiene,
This was the day Johnson tells the media: “I continue to shake hands. People obviously can make up their own minds but I think the scientific evidence is … our judgment is that washing your hands is the crucial thing.”
An increase of 34 cases in the UK to 87 is the biggest so far.
Italy announces it is shutting schools and universities. The virus has reached 81 countries, with more than 90,000 worldwide cases confirmed and more than 3,000 deaths.
Johnson says on television “one of the theories is that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures”
A woman in her 70s becomes the first person to die in with the virus in the UK. The number of confirmed cases in Britain passes 100.
England's chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, tells MPs the UK has now moved to the second stage of dealing with covid-19 – from "containment" to the "delay" phase.
Now four deaths from the virus in the UK.
Johnson: “This morning I chaired a meeting of the Government’s COBRA emergency committee on the coronavirus outbreak…Our action plan as you know sets out the four phases of our approach to tackling the virus: Contain, Delay, Research, and Mitigate.
“We remain in the Contain phase of the outbreak, but watching what is happening around the world, our scientists think containment is extremely unlikely to work on its own, and that is why we are making extensive preparations for a move to the delay phase.
“We are preparing various actions to slow the spread of this disease in order to reduce the strain it places on the NHS. The more we can delay the peak of the spread to the summer, the better the NHS will be able to manage.
“Patrick and Chris will give you some more detailed information on the latest advice we are giving the public today - and how we expect that advice to change as the outbreak develops.”
Italy has invoked total lockdown but Johnson says: “As things stand I’m afraid it bears repeating that the best thing we can all do is wash our hands for 20 seconds with soap and water.”
Nadine Dorrie becomes the first MP to test positive for coronavirus.
Six UK deaths and 373 testing positive.
More than 60,000 people attend Cheltenham Festival each day for three days.
The World Health Organisation declares an official pandemic.
About 3,000 Spaniards travel to Liverpool for a football match attended by more than 50,000, leading to an estimated 40 covid deaths.
Dr David Halpern, the behavioural scientist who heads Number 10's Behavioural Insights Team, “There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows as it will do, where you want to cocoon, to protect those at-risk groups so they don’t catch the disease. By the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population.”
Johnson chairs COBRA and says: “We’ve done what can be done to contain this disease and this has bought us valuable time. But it is now a global pandemic. And the number of cases will rise sharply and indeed the true number of cases is higher - perhaps much higher - than the number of cases we have so far confirmed with tests.”
“But as we’ve said over the last few weeks, we have a clear plan that we are now working through.And we are now moving to the next phase in that plan.
“Because this is now not just to attempt to contain the disease as far as possible, but to delay its spread and thereby minimise the suffering. If we delay the peak even by a few weeks, then our NHS will be in a stronger state
“So the most dangerous period is not now but some weeks away depending on how fast it spreads.
“Today therefore we are moving forward with our plan. From tomorrow, if you have coronavirus symptoms, however mild – either a new continuous cough or a high temperature – then you should stay at home for at least 7 days to protect others and help slow the spread of the disease.
“We advise all those over 70 and those with serious medical conditions against going on cruises and we advise against international school trips.
“At some point in the next few weeks, we are likely to go further and if someone in a household has those symptoms, we will be asking everyone in the household to stay at home. We are not introducing this yet for reasons Sir Patrick will explain, but I want to signal now that this is coming down the track.
“We are considering the question of banning major public events such as sporting fixtures. The scientific advice as we’ve said over the last couple of weeks is that banning such events will have little effect on the spread.”
Johnson tells the media conference the chief scientific adviser would set out the best information the government had.
Sir Patrick then explains to the people at the briefing the approach, mentioning herd immunity. The Government website contains many transcripts and 33 documents mentioning Sir Patrick but there is no transcript of this briefing. However, he did explain the policy next day in interviews with the BBC and Sky News.
The risk to the UK is raised from moderate to high.
Despite the January warning from the WHO that testing and tracing were essential and the experience that mass testing and tracing had been a key element of all successful attempts to contain the virus, the Government decides to cease testing in the community and retreat to testing principally within hospitals.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty says: “It is no longer necessary for us to identify every case and we will move from having testing mainly done in homes and outpatients and walk-in centres, to a situation where people who are remaining at home do not need testing.”
A parliamentary committee later investigated the March 12 decision, saying: “Amongst other consequences, it meant that residents in care homes – even those displaying Covid-19 symptoms – and care home workers could not be tested at a time when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant.”
No 10 says the Government has no plans to follow the US in banning flights from certain countries. “It’s not the current position of the UK, based on medical and scientific advice, that we should halt flights.”
Sir Patrick Vallance says on BBC radio he hoped the Gernment's approach would create a "herd immunity in the UK".
“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it. Those are the key things we need to do.”
“If you suppress something very, very hard, when you release those measures it bounces back and it bounces back at the wrong time. The government is concerned that if not enough people catch the virus now, it will re-emerge in the winter, when the NHS is already overstretched.”
In a long interview with Sky News he says the policy was to “allow enough of us who are going to get mild illness to become immune to this to help with the whole population response which would protect everybody.” This would necessitate 60% of the population catching the virus.
Professor Graham Medley, who leads the Government’s disease modelling team, tells BBC Newsnight that “we are going to have to generate what is called herd immunity… and the only way of developing that in the absence of vaccination is for the majority of the population to become infected”
Confirmed UK cases of coronavirus cases rise by more than 200 in a single day.
Public Health England downgrades its guidance on PPE and tells NHS staff it is safe to wear less protective aprons and basic surgical masks in all but the most high risk circumstances.
Premier League suspends its fixtures.
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt questions the Government's decision to delay cancelling large gatherings.
He tells BBC Newsnight it was "surprising and concerning" when we have "four weeks before we get to the stage that Italy is at…You would have thought that every single thing we do in that four weeks would be designed to slow the spread of people catching the virus," adds Mr Hunt.
The British Medical Journal editor writes: “Political populism has been a highly contagious global virus. There is a rich irony in how poorly that contagious virus prepared us for covid-19.”
“I’m very worried in the U.K. that we’re not acting quickly enough,” Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, says. “Speed is of the essence. That’s what we’ve learned with this virus and how contagious it is.” Much of Italy is in lockdown as its tally of deaths exceeds 1,000.
Bloomberg: The UK risks becoming an outlier in the global fight against the fast-spreading coronavirus, as nations across Europe take more aggressive steps such as closing schools to respond to a widening crisis. The government faces a growing backlash after saying Thursday that it was shifting strategy away from efforts to contain the spread of the disease toward moves aimed at delaying the worst of the epidemic.
Much of Italy is in lockdown as its tally of deaths exceeds 1,000.
In an open letter. 501 scientists and health experts say the UK's course of action announced on March 12 will "risk many more lives than necessary… By putting in place social distancing measures now, the growth can be slowed down dramatically, and thousands of lives can be spared…we believe that additional and more restrictive measures should be taken immediately, as it is already happening in other countries across the world.”
The day after the confirmed number of UK cases passes 1,000, Minister Hancock denies the Government is aiming for herd immunity. “Herd immunity is not our policy,” he is reported as saying.
London's Old Vic becomes the first West End theatre to cancel a performance
People are still flying internationally. The Government advises only essential travel to USA and Spain.
“When I first heard about this [UK policy], I could not believe it. I research and teach the evolution and epidemiology of infectious disease at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. My colleagues here in the US, even as they are reeling from the stumbling response of the Donald Trump administration to the crisis, assumed that reports of the UK policy were satire.” William Hanage.
In the US, nearing 3,000 cases, public events such as the baseball and basketball seasons and New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade have been cancelled.
In France, where just under 4,500 cases have been confirmed, all cafés, bars, and restaurants, as well as other gathering spots like nightclubs and movie theaters, have been ordered to close.
Spain, Europe’s second-worst-hit country with about 6,300 confirmed infections, has implemented a nationwide shutdown, with citizens only allowed to leave their homes to buy groceries, work, care for people in need, or to seek medical care.
But still no official restrictions from Downing Street.
SAGE: “there is clear evidence to support additional social distancing measures be introduced as soon as possible…These additional measures will need to be accompanied by a significant increase in testing.”
The Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team warns the current approach to dealing with covid-19 could lead to 250,000 deaths in the UK. The team had realised “only in the last few days” that mitigation would not work and that the UK should immediately move from mitigation to suppression of the virus.
“To avoid a rebound in transmission, these policies will need to be maintained until large stocks of vaccine are available to immunise the population – which could be 18 months or more.”
"We were expecting herd immunity to build,” Azra Ghani, head of infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College. We now realize it’s not possible to cope with that.” Instead, the report advocates suppressing the virus with aggressive measures that would keep case numbers consistently low, in line with what many other countries are doing.
“The UK is scrambling to correct its coronavirus strategy” says MIT Technology Review.
Boris Johnson inaugurates daily media briefings with a change in policy because “without drastic action, cases could double every 5 or 6 days.”
He says: “Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel. We need people to start working from home where they possibly can. And you should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues.
He signals further restrictions at the weekend to ensure that those with the most serious health conditions are largely shielded from social contact for around 12 weeks.
And he says “from tomorrow, we will no longer be supporting mass gatherings with emergency workers in the way that we normally do.”
He also claims that “the UK is now leading a growing global campaign amongst all our friends and allies… to fight back against this disease.”
But all this was advisory – while in France President Macron institutes a compulsory lockdown in which citizens would have to register their intention to leave their houses on a nationwide website or face a 38 euro ($42) fine, enforced by 100,000 police officers.
And while many countries have closed their borders to prevent travellers importing the virus, the UK kept its ports open. The Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Spain announced they would close borders to all foreigners. Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and several other countries have partial closures.
The UK’s death toll rises to 55, with 1,543 confirmed cases, though it is believed 10,000 people have already been infected.
Theatres close voluntarily.
WHO repeats: “…the most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate.
You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected. We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test.
Test every suspected case.”
Less than 20,000 covid deaths would be a good outcome.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warns as many as 55,000 people in the UK may now be infected and says it would be a “good outcome” if the eventual death toll could be kept below 20,000.
The Government advises against all non-essential international travel.
Cinema chains announce they will be closing all cinemas.
The Government announces most schools across England will be shut from Friday until further notice.
The Government says the number of people who died after testing positive for coronavirus has risen to 144 in the UK, an increase of 40 per cent in a day. There are now 3,269 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK.
Sir Patrick Vallance says everyone must now follow public health advice and socialising in pubs and clubs must stop.
“Why did it take the UK Government eight weeks to recognise the seriousness of what we now call Covid-19?” asks Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, “…there was a collective failure among politicians and perhaps even Government experts to recognise the signals that Chinese and Italian scientists were sending”
It is not until now that Johnson orders all pubs, restaurants, gyms and other social venues to close. Overwhelmed doctors will be given new guidelines to help them decide which coronavirus victims should potentially live or die if they run out of intensive care beds or ventilators.
The Lancet: “…this emergency is more than a public health catastrophe. It is a full-blown political crisis… one professor of public health informed about the UK's COVID-19 response talked of “serious disarray” in government.”
18.1 million people enter the UK between January 1 and March 23 by when there are 379,000 cases in the world.
A week after the Imperial College warning, Johnson announces a UK-wide partial lock down, to contain the spread of the virus. The British public are instructed they must stay at home, except for certain "very limited purposes" The regulations are enforceable by police and fines.
Johnson gives people the false hope the regulations could be lifted after only three weeks.
Australia closes its border. PM Morrison says 80% of its covid cases had come from overseas.
Epidemiologist Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University writes:
We had a choice early on in the UK’s trajectory to go down the South Korean path of mass testing, isolating carriers of the virus (50% of whom are asymptomatic), tracing all contacts to ensure they isolate as well, and at the same time taking soft measures to delay the spread. Instead, we watched and waited, and whether it was academic navel-gazing, political infighting, a sense of British exceptionalism, or a deliberate choice to minimise economic disruption over saving lives, we have ended up in a position where we are now closer to the Italy scenario than anticipated, and are faced with taking more and more drastic measures.
Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of Lancet, describes the Government’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic as “a national scandal”.
Despite believing he had contracted the virus, Dominic Cummings drives almost the length of England. And this was despite his boss having told everyone: “…we need to ask you to ensure that if you or anyone in your household has one of those two symptoms, then you should stay at home for fourteen days.”
Johnson is confirmed as having the virus.
The Government publishes policy and guidance on the discharge of patients from hospitals to care homes (some of whom may have COVID-19) which expressly permits the return of hospital patients to care homes without the need for a test.
The guidance to care home staff is that those coming into contact with a COVID-19 patient while not wearing PPE could remain at work. Analysis carried out by the Health Foundation, based on data from the Office from National Statistics, indicates that the care home death rate accelerated sharply during this period.
Johnson, who had been ill for about a week, is admitted to hospital suffering from the virus.
Johnson released from hospital but instead of going home as required by his own regulations, he travels to his second home at Chequers.
A committee of MPs is warned by Prof Anthony Costello, former director of the Institute for Global Health at University College London, the “harsh reality” was that the UK would probably see the highest death rate in Europe because ministers were "too slow" to act.
Sunday times reveals Johnson’s February holiday and missed COBRA meetings.
Government says in statement: “The Prime Minister has been at the helm of the response to this, providing leadership during this hugely challenging period for the whole nation.”
15,000 people still flying into the UK every day, untested.
“We closed down too late—that’s clear from the maths,” says Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who is advising the World Health Organization on the pandemic. “English exceptionalism has been really damaging.”
The UK death toll from the virus passes 20,000.
May 5 Chief scientist Vallance contradicts CMO Whitty’s verdict of March 12 that testing was no longer necessary.
“I think if we’d managed to ramp testing capacity quicker it would have been beneficial. And, you know, for all sorts of reasons that didn’t happen. I think it’s clear you need lots of testing for this ...I think if we do test, track and tracing well and we keep the social distancing measures at the right level we should be able to avoid a second wave.”
95,000 entries to the UK from overseas this month with the total number of infections in the world now 3.3 million.
Not until June 8 will the UK insist on a 14-day quarantine period for arrivals.
UK covid death toll reaches more than 41,000
The Office of National Statistics reports: “Up to 15 May 2020, there were 41,220 deaths registered in England and Wales involving the coronavirus (COVID-19) (23,108 men and 18,112 women).”
Former chief scientist Sir David King says the death toll after the Government’s “incoherent” and “dangerous” reponse to the pandemic could reach 200,000.
Guardian publishes figures which show death toll has topped 50,000.