12 min read
The government has changed its message on the key areas of the coronavirus response multiple times in the last six months, leading to confusion, anger and a loss of support from the public.
The debate will rage on over how far these changes have been born of the changing infection rate, and how far they are due to a lack of planning. But there is no doubt they have damaged the government.
Back in March, according to IpsosMori, 49% of the public said they believed the government was handing the pandemic either very or fairly well, with 35% saying it was being handled very or fairly badly.
When the same polling firm asked the same question in September, the figure who said it was handled badly was up 50%, with just 32% on the good side – a turnaround of +14% to -18%.
Here is a timeline of some of the measures taken over that period:
March / April – The Pandemic Begins
March 3 – A month in, no containment
As the novel coronavirus spread from China to the rest of the world, the government here in the UK began to draft guidance to help prevent its spread, beginning with the simple message to start washing your hands more frequently and for longer on February 2.
Throughout the month cases rose, eventually leading to the first fatality, and in response an action plan was published, modelled on preparations for a flu pandemic.
But even on March 3 there was no suggestion of the need to make people change their working patterns, with Boris Johnson telling a press conference they must wash their hands for as long as it took them to sing two verses of “happy birthday”.
The Sage minutes from a meeting earlier that day show the leading scientific and medical figures “discussed the impact of potential behavioural and social interventions on the spread of a Covid-19 epidemic in the UK”, but the main issue under review appears to be have been about asking the over-65s to begin social distancing.
And the official record from the next meeting, held two days later, shows the panel believed “there are currently no scientific grounds to move away from containment efforts in the UK”.
They discussed bringing in isolation measures for people with coronavirus symptoms, and in a few weeks to begin to “socially isolate those in vulnerable groups”, but Sage “agreed there is no evidence to suggest that banning very large gatherings would reduce transmission”.
March 12 – Mass testing abandoned
Having been increasing capacity over the previous weeks, hitting 25,000 tests in total, Matt Hancock announced the government would stop all community testing for Covid-19 and focus instead on testing people in hospitals and protecting health workers. The nascent contact tracing system was also abandoned, apart from high-risk environments like care homes and prisons, as the government moved from the “contain” to “delay” phase.
A Sage meeting two days prior had agreed that “based on surveillance…the UK likely has thousands of cases – as many as 5,000 to 10,000 – which are geographically spread nationally.”
Behind this was the UK’s failure to follow the much-praised model of mass testing in South Korea, which was already checking more than 10,000 people a day, using a network of private and public laboratories. Instead there was initially just one lab, the Public Health England facility in Colindale, doing all of the processing, with a capacity of just 500 tests a day.
Four days later World Health Organisation head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test.”
March 16 – WFH begins
The first major change to people’s daily lives happened when the Prime Minister delivered a statement in the House of Commons telling people “to start working from home where they possibly can”, and also “avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues”.
That came after a Sage meeting that morning, where it was agreed “there is clear evidence to support additional social distancing measures be introduced as soon as possible”, after data had accrued showing the disease spreading much faster than previously through, with fears for the first time the NHS could become overwhelmed.
It was firmed up by the full lockdown announced a week later, and the unveiling of the “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives” slogan.
April 2 – Mass testing back on the menu
Less than a month after decrying the value of mass testing, Matt Hancock announced he wanted to reach 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month.
A national testing strategy was discussed at a Sage meeting earlier that day, but shunted to further summits, and at the meeting a fortnight later the minutes show PHE “confirmed it was unable to deliver a community testing programme”.
May 10 – Go into work if you can
Almost two months after the “Stay Home” slogan launched later Mr Johnson sought to alter that message, shifting to the little understood and much derided “stay alert” motto on 10 May, telling the nation: “We said that you should work from home if you can, and only go to work if you must.
“We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.”
But the public was left confused when he added: “And we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited.
“So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.”
The public’s feelings were summed up by a viral tweet from comedian Matt Lucas, who mocked the PM in a video where people were repeatedly told “go to work, don’t go to work”, however it was easy to see why the government was looking to get the economy moving again, after the Bank of England had just said the UK was set to enter its worst recession for 300 years, with output due to plunge almost 30% in the first half of 2020, and unemployment to more than double before the end of spring.
May 18 – Testing for all
Mr Hancock announced that everyone aged five and over in the UK with symptoms could now be tested for coronavirus, with the Health Secretary saying the government was “expanding eligibility for testing further than ever before”. He also revealed more than 21,000 coronavirus contact tracers had now been hired across England, with the testing and tracking system set to be up and running by 1 June.
July 4 – Independence Day
Contrary to popular belief the PM never actually said it was the public’s “patriotic duty” to go back to the pub, but he did agree with a Tory MP in the Commons in June 23 who said people should “do their patriotic best for Britain” by heading back to pubs when they re-opened on July 4.
“Yes,” he said in response to Gareth Johnson. “I do encourage people to take advantage of the freedoms that they are rightly reacquiring, but I must stress that people should act in a responsible way.”
Four days the Chancellor made a statement in the Commons setting out further plans to help the hospitality industry, and was then filmed taking food to people’s tables at a branch of Wagamama’s in East London.
August – Back To Work
Aug 1 – A WFH policy change
The messaging on working from home changed when the PM gave a statement to a Downing Street press conference on July 17, saying: “From 1 August, we will update our advice on going to work.
“Instead of government telling people to work from home, we are going to give employers more discretion, and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely.
“That could mean of course continuing to work from home, which is one way of working safely and which has worked for many employers and employees.
“Or it could mean making workplaces safe by following Covid Secure guidelines. Whatever employers decide, they should consult closely with their employees, and only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe.”
It came after the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, the sub-group known as SPI-M-O, had presented evidence showing the R rate was below the all-important figure of 1, and had stayed there for a number of weeks.
Aug 3 – Eat Out to Help Out
The flagship scheme to kickstart the ailing restaurant industry and its 1.8 million jobs got underway, with the public offered money off their restaurant meals throughout the month. It followed on from bleak restaurant data via OpenTable revealing bookings had been 54% lower on average in July than the same month the previous year.
By the end of the month more than 100 million meals had been claimed under it, with the Chancellor later forced to defend the policy from accusations it helped cause the UK’s second spike – after speculation the final day of the scheme, which took place on the August Bank Holiday Monday, coincided with the beginning of a rise in Covid-19 cases. “I think it’s probably simplistic to look at any one thing,” Mr Sunak said.
Aug 18 – Let them have tests
After a series of ambitious testing targets Mr Hancock reveals a new plan to give the entire population regular coronavirus checks as standard as part of a future plan to ease the lockdown.
He told the BBC: “Mass testing, population testing, where we make it the norm that people get tested regularly, allowing us therefore to allow some of the freedoms back, is a huge project in government right now.”
Aug 28 – Go into work ‘or risk losing your job’
The next shift in tone took place on 19 August, when Matt Hancock said there was “little evidence” of coronavirus spreading in offices, suggesting catching the disease was not a reason to stay home. But that rhetoric was beefed up considerably by a striking Telegraph front page on August 28 with the headline “go back to work or risk losing your job”.
The story said the PM was becoming increasingly worried about empty offices and the failure for people to go back into city centres of their own accord, with a government source telling the newspaper those people who stay working from home will be “in the most vulnerable position” when companies look to restructure.
That was despite a Sage meeting the previous day suggesting the “R may be above 1 in England and across the UK” – but at the same time Pret a Manger announced it was cutting 2,800 jobs as footfall statistics showed that despite the success of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, the number of people visiting the high street was down almost 40% on August 2019.
September – The Second Wave
Sep 9 – Testing times
After days of issues with capacity and processing, with reports of a backlog of 185,000 tests and others having to be voided, the government admitted there was a problem. Sarah-Jane Marsh, director of testing at NHS Test and Trace, apologised and tweeted: “All of our testing sites have capacity, which is why they don’t look overcrowded, it’s our laboratory processing that is the critical pinch-point.”
But Mr Hancock blamed people with no coronavirus symptoms getting tests, suggesting around 25% of people receiving a kit are actually ineligible, a figure the Department for Health and Social Care said “came from internal track and trace research”. The health secretary also admitted it could take weeks for the problem to be fixed, and in the meantime he would publish a priority list for testing again, with members of the public at the back of the line.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who famously warned people “don’t rip the pants out of it” when measures first began to be unlocked, said the rise in coronavirus cases had come because people had “relaxed too much”.
But according to some of those involved in the testing infrastructure the problem lay with staffing problems at the government’s Lighthouse Labs, which had relied on PhD and post-doctorate students to help process samples. They were now heading back to university, leaving a serious shortage.
Sep 22 – Back home again
Less than a month after government sources told people they might lose their job if they didn’t go back to the office, the promised public information campaign to encourage this was shelved, after Michael Gove went out onto the airwaves to say: “We are stressing that if it is safe to work in your workplace, if you are in a Covid-secure workplace, then you should be there if your job requires it.
“But, if you can work from home you should.”
That change was part of a package of measures laid out by the PM for a de facto second lockdown after positive cases tripled from the end of August, hitting almost 5,000 a day by 22 September – the highest since the peak of the virus back in early May.
Sep 24 – Last orders
And six months on from the lockdown first being introduced, new restrictions on pubs, bars and restaurants came into force, with punters kicked out of premises at 10pm. It was later reported Sage did not model the effect of such a curfew, nor was its behavioural science sub-group, with member Professor John Edmunds, saying it would have a “trivial” impact on the epidemic.
Mr Johnson said evidence showed “the spread of the disease does tend to happen later at night after more alcohol has been consumed” and defended 10pm closing time, with the government suggesting a similar measure in Belgium led to a decline in case numbers. But that example of early closing was also accompanied by full night-time curfews, and a raft of MPs have asked for the evidence it will work to cut cases in the UK.
Richard Caring, who owns the Ivy chain of restaurants, warned people would simply turn to drinking on the streets and at house parties after 10pm, saying: “Does the government really believe they will all go home to their beds?”
Egypt adds restaurant at ancient pyramid site
Developers late on Tuesday night opened a new restaurant, “9 Pyramids Lounge”, which covers an area of 1,341 square meters and overlooks the Giza pyramids. There will also be a fleet of new environmentally-friendly buses to guide tourists around the plateau.
“One of the problems always faced is that people say there are no special services for tourists, that there is no cafeteria, no restaurant, nothing that can be offered to visitors,” said Mostafa Waziri, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
The new facilities are all easily taken part and reassembled so as to protect the antiquities and Waziri said the open-air restaurant offered “a panorama view that cannot be matched anywhere in the world.”
Tourism accounts for up to 15% of Egypt’s national output. However, officials have said previously the sector is losing around $1 billion each month after largely shutting down for several months from March due to the spread of coronavirus.
The changes at the plateau are part of wider efforts to develop key tourist sites in the country. Next year the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is set to be the world’s largest archaeological museum, is due to open just beyond the Giza Pyramids.
Egyptian business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, the plateau’s main developer, said the 301 million Egyptian pound ($19.23 million)project is part of a greater plan to develop the UNESCO world heritage site and streamline tourists’ experience.
“We will organise the salespeople,” said Sawiris. “We will not deprive them of their income but we will put them into suitable, nice places.”
Pelosi suggests coronavirus relief deal could slip past November elections
Talks between the speaker and White House over a coronavirus relief package have remained at an impasse for months, though Pelosi said Tuesday that she and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are “on a path” to a deal. But a larger relief agreement has met resistance in the GOP-controlled Senate, where some Republicans have blanched at a multi-trillion dollar price tag.
The California Democrat said she has been buoyed by recent progress made between House Democrats and the White House, but several issues remain outstanding with less than two weeks until Election Day.
“We’re in a better place than we have been,” she said. “None of it is insurmountable if you want to make a decision.”
The speaker said that “it’s up to” President Donald Trump — who has said he wants a relief package with a higher price tag than the $2.2 trillion proposal Democrats are pushing — to cajole members of his party and get the eventual agreement over the finish line.
“I wouldn’t even be having these discussions if we didn’t think the president had some sway as to whether the Senate would take this legislation up,” she said. Senate Democrats on Wednesday also blocked a narrow, $500 billion GOP-pushed Covid-19 relief package from moving forward in the upper chamber, essentially dismissing it as a political stunt.
Pelosi’s comments echoed those she made earlier in the day on Sirius XM, in which she said “the president needs this legislation.”
“We obviously want to have a deal by November 3rd,” she said. “That really is going to be up to whether the president can convince Mitch McConnell to do so.”
US election 2020: A really simple guide
Click or tap on an underlined word for a short definition or explanation
The US president has a huge influence on people’s lives both at home and abroad, so when the next election is held on 3 November, the outcome will matter to everyone.
The US political system is dominated by just two parties, so the president always belongs to one of them.
The Republicans are the conservative political party in the US and their candidate in this year’s election is President Donald Trump, who is hoping to secure another four years in power.
The Democrats are the liberal political party in the US and their candidate is Joe Biden, an experienced politician best-known for serving as Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years.
Both men are in their 70s – Mr Trump would be 74 years old at the start of his second term, while at 78, Mr Biden would be the oldest first-term president in history.
How is the winner decided?
Both candidates compete to win electoral college votes.
Each state gets a certain number of electoral college votes partly based on its population and there are a total of 538 up for grabs, so the winner is the candidate that wins 270 or more.
This means voters decide state-level contests rather than the national one, which is why it’s possible for a candidate to win the most votes nationally – like Hillary Clinton did in 2016 – but still be defeated by the electoral college.
All but two states have a winner-takes-all rule, so whichever candidate wins the highest number of votes is awarded all of the state’s electoral college votes.
Most states lean heavily towards one party or the other, so the focus is usually on a dozen or so states where either of them could win. These are known as the battleground states.
Who can vote and how do they do it?
If you’re a US citizen and you’re 18 or over, you should be eligible to vote in the presidential election, which takes place every four years.
However, lots of states have passed laws requiring voters to show identification documents to prove who they are before they can vote.
These laws are often put into place by Republicans who say they’re needed to guard against voter fraud. But Democrats accuse them of using this as a form of voter suppression as it is often poorer, minority voters who are unable to provide ID like a driving licence.
How people vote is a contentious issue this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some politicians are calling for wider use of postal ballots, but President Trump has said – with very little evidence – that this could result in more voter fraud.
Is the election just about who is president?
No. All of the attention will be on Trump v Biden, but voters will also be choosing new members of Congress when they fill in their ballots.
Democrats already have control of the House so they will be looking to keep hold of that while also gaining control of the Senate.
If they had a majority in both chambers they would be able to block or delay President Trump’s plans if he were to be re-elected.
All 435 seats in the House are up for election this year, while 33 Senate seats are also up for grabs.
When will we find out the result?
It can take several days for every vote to be counted, but it’s usually pretty clear who the winner is by the early hours of the following morning.
In 2016, Donald Trump took to the stage in New York at about 3am to give his victory speech in front of a crowd of jubilant supporters.
But don’t set your alarm clocks just yet. Officials are already warning that we may have to wait longer – possibly days, even weeks – for the result this year because of the expected surge in postal ballots.
The last time the result wasn’t clear within a few hours was in 2000, when the winner wasn’t confirmed until a Supreme Court ruling was made a month later.
When does the winner take office?
If Joe Biden wins the election, he wouldn’t immediately replace President Trump as there is a set transition period to give the new leader time to appoint cabinet ministers and make plans.
The new president is officially sworn into office on 20 January in a ceremony known as the inauguration, which is held on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington DC.
After the ceremony, the new president makes their way to the White House to begin their four-year term in office.
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