The twists and U-turns behind the government’s Covid-19 policy

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons - Credit: PA

The last-minute cancellation of plans to allow millions of people to mix over Christmas is the latest in a series of coronavirus policy U-turns to hit England this year.

Throughout the pandemic government advice has shifted on a range of issues, as mixed messages triggered frustration and confusion.

Here is a summary of some of the different twists and turns Government advice for England has taken:

– March 12 – Community testing abandoned

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said the NHS would change its approach to testing for coronavirus, with only those at hospitals to be formally tested.


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Just the day before, the NHS said it was undertaking a “significant expansion” of testing and planned to “ramp up” facilities so that 10,000 coronavirus tests could be performed a day.

Essential workers and their households became eligible for testing at the end of April, with this expanded to all people aged five and over with symptoms in the middle of May.

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– July 14 – Face coverings must be worn in shops

Some four months after England went into lockdown, face coverings became mandatory for shop customers.

Earlier in the pandemic, the Government was reluctant to enforce the wearing of face coverings, with experts warning they could give a false sense of security and improper use could increase the spread of infection.

They were made mandatory for travelling on public transport in England in June, but it was not until July, after weeks of mixed messaging, that they became required inside shops.

Industry bodies had to call for clarity over whether face coverings were required in takeaways and sandwich shops after contradictory statements from within Government.

– August 25 – Face masks required in schools

The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson performed a U-turn when he announced face coverings would be required for secondary pupils and staff in communal areas of schools in local lockdown areas of England. This was despite him previously insisting they were not required.

The new advice came a day after a Number 10 spokesman said there were no plans to review the guidance.

– September 22 – Return to work advice scrapped

Plans to get employees back into their workplace in a bid to revive the economy were scrapped, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson telling office staff to work from home if they could.

The Prime Minister had led calls for staff to return to work in response to concerns that cafes and other businesses which rely on demand from commuters and office workers were facing ruin. But a rise in coronavirus cases forced him to change advice.

Efforts to get 80% of civil servants back working in Whitehall also appeared to be abandoned, after they were attacked by unions.

– October 31 – Second lockdown announced

A month-long second national lockdown for England was announced by Mr Johnson.

The Prime Minister and his team had insisted right up until the day before the announcement that England’s system of tiered restrictions was the best approach to tackling a second wave of coronavirus, while avoiding the economic damage of a full circuit-break.

– December 14 – Local restrictions changed early

Two days before a planned review of the coronavirus tier system on December 16 took place, Health Secretary Matt Hancock placed London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire into the highest tier of restrictions.

The announcement moved almost 10.8 million people into Tier 3.

– December 16 – Christmas guidance toughened but rules not changed

Amid concern over rising Covid-19 cases, the Prime Minister addressed the nation, urging people to have a “smaller” and “safer” Christmas.

In an effort to toughen Christmas guidance he told the public to “think hard” about their actions during the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions, but did not announce a change to the planned rules allowing three households to mix between December 23 and 27.

– December 19 – Christmas cancelled for millions

Three days later, Mr Johnson announced that Christmas was cancelled for millions of people living in London and across south-east England as the emergence of a new coronavirus strain saw the Government move the regions into a new Tier 4.

For two weeks the affected areas are to return to rules similar to November’s lockdown.

People living elsewhere in England were told that the Christmas bubble policy was curtailed and would only apply to Christmas Day.

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