How UK coronavirus guidance has changed
Boris Johnson's government has instructed Brits to work from home, not to work from home, to eat out and stay in, all within a few weeks.
LONDON — People who enjoy clichés say a week is a long time in politics. Many in the U.K. government would argue a week tackling the coronavirus pandemic is much longer.
The U.K. government has faced sustained criticism over guidance that changes frequently and at times appears arbitrary. Some experts have claimed the public are confused, making compliance difficult.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, however, counters that scientific understanding of this new virus is changing day by day and policy needs to evolve as circumstances change. They point to examples such as the World Health Organisation, which has changed the advice it gives on multiple occasions, most famously on face masks in June.
POLITICO sifted through the carefully-modeled slogans, tortured metaphors and “guided by the science” pronouncements to create a timeline of major changes to the government’s advice since the pandemic began:
Sunday, February 2: Wash your hands
The government and NHS’s first public health information campaign urged the public to “always carry tissues” to catch coughs or sneezes and to wash hands with soap and warm water. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that by following basic hygiene, “we can all play our part” in preventing the spread of the virus.
Much stricter stuff was to follow.
Tuesday, March 3: Wash your hands — for longer
A month later, following the first death of a Brit from coronavirus, advice to the public remained much the same despite the publication of a new action plan.
The main change was a cosmetic one. Flanked by his top science and health officials at the first coronavirus press conference, Johnson urged Brits to wash their hands for as long as it took them to sing two verses of “Happy birthday.”
Monday, March 16: Optional lockdown, avoid still-open pubs, work from home
The tone was very different nearly two weeks later as cases reached the thousands and over 50 deaths had been recorded.
“Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel,” Johnson told the nation, while, for the first time, advising people to work from home where they can.
In telling the nation to “avoid” pubs, clubs and social venues, rather than instructing those venues to close, the message was clear — it was a lockdown, but only an optional one. Brits were also advised to “physically distance” from each other.
Friday, March 20: Pubs must close
Just four days later, Johnson instructed those same venues to close “as soon as they reasonably can.”
Monday, March 23: Stay at home
Optional became mandatory: Brits were no longer asked to “stay at home” but told to do so in an extraordinary address from Johnson.
The government introduced the slogan: “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”
Sunday, May 10: Stay alert
After almost two months of Zoom pub quizzes, “Clap for our Carers” and tightly regimented outdoor exercise, Johnson unveiled a “conditional plan to reopen society” along with a new coronavirus message to replace its successful predecessor.
“Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives” confused the public, with less than a third understanding the meaning, according to one poll.
Johnson also said that those who could not work from home — name-checking construction workers — should return to work but avoid public transport if possible.
Monday, May 11: *Try* to wear masks
Weeks after governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland had recommended their use, the U.K. government changed their advice to recommend the public “aim” to use face coverings on public transport and in shops “where social distancing is not always possible.”
‘Super’ Saturday, July 4: Go to the pub
The planned reopening of pubs in England on the first Saturday in July led to much excitement in the British press and parts of the public — some of it egged on by the government.
When announcing the planned relaxation of restrictions, Johnson himself said he wanted “to see bustle” and for people to go out and enjoy themselves, while warning them not to “overdo it.”
The Treasury went one further as the day approached, tweeting “grab a drink and raise a glass, pubs are reopening their doors from 4 July #openforbusiness.” The tweet was later deleted.
Pictures of packed streets and pubs in London sparked alarm when they were posted on social media that Saturday.
Wednesday, July 8: Go to restaurants
After unveiling his “Eat out to help out” scheme designed to tempt the public back to restaurants with half-price meals in August, Chancellor Rishi Sunak served food to customers at chain restaurant Wagamama.
He was criticized for the photo op due to his non-wearing of a mask or any other protective equipment while around customers.
Tuesday, July 14: Wear masks, or else
Hancock announced that masks would become compulsory in English shops, with anyone failing to comply without a valid reason subject to a fine of up to £100. The move brought England in line with Scotland and other European nations like Spain and Germany.
He said it would “give people more confidence to shop safely and enhance protections for those who work in shops.”
Friday, July 17: Work wherever your employer wants you to
As part of an announcement of further easing of restrictions to aid a “significant return to normality by Christmas,” Johnson said the government was no longer telling people they should work from home.
Instead, with restrictions on the use of public transport lifted, employers were to be given more discretion to choose where their employees worked from.
Wednesday, August 19: No excuse not to go back to the office
There is “little evidence” of coronavirus spreading in offices, Hancock told the BBC — meaning there was little reason not to return to work.
Having earlier said working from home “should be the norm where possible,” the health secretary added his voice to those of other ministers who had spent August making soft noises about getting people back into offices to protect inner-city businesses.
Friday, August 28: Go back to the office or else
A new drive to get Britain back to the office, led by Johnson himself, aimed to push the major benefits of getting back to work and to reassure Brits that “the workplace is a safe place.”
But it also included coded warnings of the negatives of working from home — namely that struggling firms will find it much easier to sack workers they never see face to face.
Wednesday, September 9: Hands, face, space and rule of six
In response to rising cases, Johnson re-introduced restrictions on meeting in groups along with the “rule of six” slogan. He also used the government’s new coronavirus message for the first time: “Hands. Face. Space.”
This was designed to emphasize the washing of hands, wearing of face coverings and distancing from others while going about business as normal.
Monday, September 14: Report rule of six breakers
Crime and Policing Minister Kit Malthouse urged the public to report their neighbors and anyone else they saw breaking the new coronavirus restrictions, as he confirmed the government were looking into “reporting mechanisms” for the public to be able to do so.
Wednesday, September 16: Don’t report rule of six breakers
Two days later, Johnson told the Sun he had “never much been in favor of sneak culture” and that the public should only report breaking of the restrictions if there was “some kind of animal house party taking place.”
Tuesday, September 22: Work from home
Given the broadcast round ahead of the government’s announcement of some new restrictions, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove told people in England the government’s advice had changed again — they were now advising the public to work from home “if they can.”