Every Covid U-turn the Government made during pandemic

It is only a few days since the last government U-turn, when ministers threw millions of people’s Christmas plans into disarray.

That one is the freshest in our minds, but it was only the festive sprig of holly on top of an array of other last-minute policy changes made since the pandemic started.

Obviously, it has been a difficult year for us all – not least for those in government.

But as the year comes to an end, it’s traditional to look back on all our mistakes and think about what we could have done better.

For those in charge of handling the biggest global crisis since the Second World War (according to the UN Secretary General), their errors have a wider impact than the rest of us failing to hit our New Year’s Resolutions.

Here are the mistakes ministers in England wanted a do-over on.

March 12 – Community testing abandoned

Back in March, there were plans for the NHS to ‘ramp up’ testing facilities so that more than 10,000 coronavirus tests could be performed a day (well below the current levels – there were 423,675 tests conducted yesterday).

But just a day later, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said only patients in hospitals would be formally tested.

With tests only of those with severe illness, our official figures for how many cases there were at that time suggest they were much lower than they really were.

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.

July 14 – Face coverings must be worn in shops

At the beginning of the pandemic, ministers were regularly quizzed on face masks and how effective they were.

Back in April, we were told that the official government advice was still that there was no need to wear a face mask in public to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, said: ‘There is no evidence that general wearing of face masks by the public who are well affects the spread of the disease in our society.’

Fast forward 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 17 – Exam result algorithm scrapped

It’s not strictly part of Covid policy – but this was huge U-turn and came after public outcry.

With in-person exams cancelled due to the spread of the virus, results for A Levels and GCSEs were decided on the basis of a formula that took into account past performance of their school as well as individual attainment.

Hundreds of pupils spoke out about how they were marked down from their predicted grades and would have missed out on their university places.

After mass protests, ministers announced students would receive grades based on teacher assessment instead.

August 25 – Face masks required in schools

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson performed another 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

Ministers were keen to get everyone back into the office – despite fears that long commutes and workplace mixing could drive a resurgence of the virus.

The Prime Minister had led calls for staff to return to work in response to concerns that cafes and other businesses – like Pret – which rely on demand from commuters and office workers were facing ruin.

After headlines telling people that they risked losing their jobs if they didn’t head back in person, there was an increase in cases and the prime minister changed advice, telling office staff to work from home if they could.

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

Right up until the day before the announcement, Boris Johnson had insisted that the localised tier system was the best approach to tackling a second wave of coronavirus.

In mid-October, Labour leader Keir Starmer called for a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown to avoid ‘sleepwalking into a long and bleak winter’.

He was rebuffed – but on Halloween, a month-long second national lockdown for England was announced by Mr Johnson.

It was similar to the first lockdown with pubs and non-essential shops told to close, but schools remained open.

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 at the time (although a higher tier was later created).

The announcement moved almost 10.8 million people into tier three.

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 in a ‘bubble’ 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 variant saw the Government move the regions into a new tier four.

For at least 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.

Originally, three households had been allowed to mix for five days in a ‘bubble’.

The announcement led to chaotic scenes at train stations as people tried to leave London before the new restrictions came in at midnight.

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