It started at 4:30 p.m. last Saturday afternoon with a video meeting of the Covid-O cabinet committee – or coronavirus operations -. There were ministers from six different departments, plus Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer of England, ministers from the Scottish and Welsh administrations and senior officials.
The mood was dark. Under the chairmanship of Health Secretary Matt Hancock, the question was what to do with Spain, Britain’s favorite summer vacation destination, to which 1.8 million people planned to fly in August. Should it remain one of the countries the UK has an ‘airlift’ with, without needing to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return, or should it now be classified as unsafe?
Whitty was unequivocal. The number of new infections in Spain had increased by 75% in the previous 48 hours and was on the rise in 15 of Spain’s 19 regions. More importantly, 10 Britons who had tested positive for the coronavirus since July 1 were in Spain in the two weeks before their test.
Hancock told the meeting that while Spain had instituted regional lockdowns in the worst affected areas, many nightclubs were still open, unlike Britain. A third of the 281 active outbreaks in Spain were linked to social gatherings, including nightclubs.
The idea of turning around at a recent green light for the Spanish airlift involved obvious embarrassment for ministers and angst for vacationers. But the nightmarish scenario of those 10 cases followed by hundreds more as the summer rolled on prompted those in attendance to act and act now.
The drawbridge to Spain was lifted and the change was announced at 7:30 p.m., hours before it went into effect. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, had enough insider knowledge not to have started his planned vacation in the country – but he feared a backlash if he avoided the pain felt by other British tourists, so he flew to Spain only to return, purple suitcase in hand, a few days later.
On Tuesday, Jet2 accused the government of giving information “contradictory and often without notice”. Pedro Sánchez, Spanish Prime Minister, called the U-turn “unfair”.
For the first time, and echoing a warning on the Guardian’s front page that day, Boris Johnson said there were signs of a second wave of the pandemic in Europe. The next day, Luxembourg was added to the unsafe list; cases in Belgium are being watched closely.
The growing caution was underscored when a series of medical experts speaking to the all-party parliamentary group on the coronavirus on Wednesday revealed concerns about a second spike.
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, warned that the concern of heads of hospitals and general practitioners was very high. “There is real concern about the winter and the aggravating factors there, but also about a previous peak,” he said. Scientists recently said that in a worst-case scenario, winter and beyond could see a combination of normal respiratory illnesses and the resurgence of Covid-19 claim 120,000 lives.
Jose Vazquez-Boland, president of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh, said growing evidence showed that after months in which transmission and infection rates in the UK had plummeted, “We are facing a return to community transmission after lockdown measures,” adding: “There will be a resurgence of new cases any time the social restraint measures are lifted as long as the virus remains in circulation. ”
Thursday saw more painful news for the government – official confirmation from the Bureau of National Statistics that England had the highest excess death toll in Europe in the first half of the year. Then came two changes in tactics.
That morning, on the advice of the chief medical officers of the four countries of origin, the length of time that anyone with symptoms had to self-isolate was reduced from seven to ten days. “It was a clinical decision; ministers were not involved. Marketing directors said, “We have to do it and do it fast,” “a Whitehall source explained.
The afternoon was marked by a meeting of the Golden Committee of senior government and public health officials, which Hancock again chaired. Again, there was disheartening news.
Evidence from Public Health England and the Joint Biosecurity Center has shown a worrying increase in infections in the North West of England. This time, locally imposed guidelines would not suffice – the force of law was needed.
Shortly before 5 p.m., Hancock called Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham to warn him that a ban would be imposed on people in any household in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire or East Lancashire from meeting people from another home inside. The profound impact of this situation was clear: It was the eve of Eid, and many areas subject to the ban have large Muslim populations.
At this point, Burnham was grateful for the central government communication, but that gratitude would not last. It took four more hours before Hancock announced the change – in a tweet and music video after 9 p.m., with the measures to be imposed at midnight.
A chief executive of a local authority in West Yorkshire was still trying to get the latest details from Whitehall officials on the new rules for the area when the changes began to be revealed on Sky News.
Confusion reigned over the meaning of the new rules, amid rumors that all pubs and restaurants in the area were to be closed. The Ministry of Health and Social Affairs finally released an explanatory note to the media at 11:19 p.m.
“Our frustrations came later in the evening if I’m being honest,” Burnham said. “I think in hindsight, there would be a lot more to be done to properly inform the public.” As recriminations rose on Friday, Johnson hastily organized the Downing Street press conference which some believed should have been used to announce the northern England measures in the first place.
Amid new figures showing nearly 5,000 new infections per day, this time the action would be England-wide: a series of openings slated for August 1 would be shelved, including casinos and bowling alleys, and pilot sporting events would be postponed for at least two weeks. , he announced.
“We have to act quickly to protect those we love. With these numbers climbing, our assessment is that we should now step on that brake pedal in order to keep the virus under control.
One official said ministers were right to act quickly, despite claims that the gradual increase in cases could have led to smoother communications. “Given the speed of transmission of the virus, we should not wait.”
Others have taken a different point of view. Johnson had sought to give the impression of a government taking decisive action after carefully weighing the new evidence. But shortly after his press conference ended, another official, reflecting on the events of the week, simply said, “This is a shitty show.”
Additional reports: Pamela Duncan and Severin Carrell