Coronavirus: A timeline of how Britain went from ‘low risk’ to an unprecedented national shutdown

Just two months ago, the UK had yet to see its first case of Covid-19

Tom Embury-Dennis
Saturday 21 March 2020 19:45 GMT
Public urged to stop 'selfishly shopping' during coronavirus pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the globe, killing thousands and devastating national economies, Britain has belatedly taken some of the measures already seen across much of mainland Europe.

Gradually then suddenly, the government has implemented unprecedented restrictions on the public in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus, including the indefinite closure of most schools, and all restaurants and pubs.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Friday also announced extraordinary financial measures to maintain livelihoods, including a guarantee the government will pay 80 per cent of wages for workers at risk of losing their jobs.

But how did we get here? From January’s first hints of trouble, to Saturday’s pleas for members of the public to stop stockpiling, here is a timeline of events in Britain over the past two months.

Wednesday 22 January

Amid an explosion of coronavirus cases in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak began, Public Health England (PHE) announces it is moving the risk level to the British public from “very low” to “low”. Heathrow begins screening all arrivals from Wuhan.

There are as of now no confirmed cases in the UK, and just nine official coronavirus-related deaths in China.

Wednesday 29 January

The UK’s first two patients test positive for Covid-19 after two Chinese nationals from the same family staying at a hotel in York fall ill. One was studying at the University of York.

A plane evacuating Britons from Wuhan arrives at RAF Brize Norton. Passengers go into a 14-day quarantine at a specialist hospital on Merseyside.

Thursday 6 February

Britain’s third patient tests positive for coronavirus, having contracted the illness at a conference in Singapore. The 53-year-old so-called “super spreader” is later linked with 11 other cases, five of which are in the UK.

Monday 10 February

After the confirmed number of patients in the UK hits eight, health secretary Matt Hancock announces new regulations giving doctors “strengthened powers” to forcibly quarantine people for their own safety.

Sunday 23 February

Four British nationals repatriated from a cruise ship moored off the coast of Japan test positive for the virus, bringing the total number of cases in the UK to 13. The Diamond Princess is home to the largest outbreak outside of mainland China after hundreds on board are infected.

Friday 28 February

Coronavirus claims its first British victim after Japanese authorities confirm the death of a tourist who was onboard the Diamond Princess. UK authorities also confirm the first case of the illness to be passed on inside the country.

Friday sees the end of the worst week for global stock markets since the 2008 financial crash.

Wednesday 4 March

Cases of Covid-19 begin to surge in the UK. Officials announce the biggest one-day increase so far as 34 cases bring the total to 87. Emergency discussions take place in Westminster over a possible shutdown of parliament.

Elsewhere, Italy announces it is shutting schools and universities amid what is developing into the worst outbreak in Europe. The virus has now reached 81 countries, with more than 90,000 confirmed worldwide cases and more than 3,000 deaths.

Thursday 5 March

A woman in her 70s becomes the first person to die in the UK after testing positive for coronavirus. The number of people infected with the disease in Britain surges past 100.

Tuesday 10 March

Nadine Dorries, a junior health minister, becomes the first MP to test positive for coronavirus. Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis also announces he has the illness.

Six people in the UK have now died of the illness, with 373 testing positive.

Wednesday 11 March

Mr Sunak announces a £12bn package of emergency support to help the UK cope with the expected onslaught from coronavirus. The World Health Organisation officially declares a pandemic.

Friday 13 March

Confirmed UK cases of coronavirus cases rise by more than 200 in a single day, and a host of sporting events announce their postponement including the London Marathon. Premier League fixtures are suspended.

Sunday 15 March

The day after the confirmed number of cases passes 1,000, Matt Hancock says the elderly could be quarantined for a period of up to four months in the coming weeks as a precautionary measure to protect lives.

Major supermarkets warn the public against panic-buying and tell people to “be considerate in the way they shop” as alarm at the escalating crisis mounts.

Monday 16 March

During his first daily press briefing, Boris Johnson urges everybody in the UK to work from home and avoid pubs and restaurants to give the NHS time to cope with the pandemic.

The UK’s death toll rises to 55, with 1,543 confirmed cases, though it is believed 10,000 people have already been infected.

Tuesday 17 March

Mr Sunak unleashes the biggest package of emergency state support for business since the 2008 financial crash, unveiling £330bn-worth of government-backed loans and more than £20bn in tax cuts and grants for companies threatened with collapse.

Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warns as many as 55,000 people in the UK may now be infected and says it would be a “good outcome” if the eventual death toll could be kept below 20,000.

Wednesday 18 March

The government announces most schools across England will be shut down from Friday until further notice. Wales and Scotland also say they will close schools by the end of the week.

Thursday 19 March

The government says the number of people who died after testing positive for coronavirus has risen to 144 in the UK, an increase of 40 per cent in a day. The Department of Health and announces there are now 3,269 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK.

Sir Patrick Vallance says everyone must now follow public health advice and socialising in pubs and clubs must stop.

Friday 20 March

In a truly historic escalation of the UK’s response to the outbreak, Mr Johnson orders all pubs, restaurants, gyms and other social venues across the country to close their doors for the foreseeable future.

The chancellor announces the government will pay up to 80 per cent of wages for workers' at risk of being laid off, and The Independent reveals overwhelmed doctors will be given new guidelines to help them decide which coronavirus victims should potentially live or die if they run out of intensive care beds or ventilators.

Saturday 21 March

A senior NHS boss tells panic buyers they should “be ashamed” over depriving healthcare staff of food supplies before the health service announces an historic deal with private hospitals, securing almost 20,000 additional staff and thousands of extra beds.

In the UK more than 230 people have died after contracting the virus, with infection cases surpassing 4,000. Worldwide the number stands at more than 270,000 cases and 11,000 deaths.

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