In Depth

The UK’s coronavirus pandemic timeline

A year since the first confirmed case, the virus has claimed more than 100,000 lives

“I remember leaving home and walking through London Bridge station with all these people walking around me and just thinking ‘none of them know what’s about to hit them’”.

Today marks 12 months since senior aide to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, was called in the middle of the night to be told a life-altering piece of news.

At 12.41am on 1 February 2020, Njoku-Goodwin was told by the Department of Health that the first confirmed Covid case had been reported in the UK. 

Despite the time, “the protocol was that officials had to alert the health secretary, who in turn had to inform the prime minister”, Politico reports. What followed would change life in the UK forever - claiming more than 100,000 lives in the process.

4 February

The government’s modelling group says it is “unclear whether outbreaks can be contained by isolation and contact tracing. If a high proportion of asymptomatic cases are infectious, then containment is unlikely via these policies.”

11 February

Advice on mass gatherings is published in a paper from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O) which recommends the government should not close down such meetings.

“The direct impact of stopping large public gatherings on the population-level spread of the epidemic is low”, says the paper, which goes on to suggest cancelling large events could drive people into smaller places where contagion was more likely.

26 February

Sage advises the government that restricting activities outside the household other than school and work would delay the peak of the coronavirus outbreak by three to five weeks and reduce overall cases by 50% to 60%.

It reiterates that school closures are unlikely to contain an outbreak, but could reduce the peak, if enacted early enough.

The advisory group also suggests that isolating suspected cases and quarantining households which have been in contact with suspected cases for 13 weeks could delay the peak of an outbreak and could reduce it by around 25%, says BuzzFeed.

27 February

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty tells the media that mass gatherings such as sports events and concerts may have to be cancelled, and schools closed for more than two months, if the UK is hit badly by coronavirus, reports The Guardian.

Two days later, Health Minister Edward Argar told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “decisions on large events and whether they should go ahead will be taken at the time on the basis of the evidence.” 

Argar added that Whitty was “not saying there is a need for that now”, adding: “He’s been clear there is no reason or need for schools en masse to close.”

3 March

Sage writes: “There was agreement that Government should advise against greetings such as shaking hands and hugging, given existing evidence about the importance of hand hygiene.”

“A public message against shaking hands has additional value as a signal about the importance of hand hygiene,” the Sage sub-group, the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), said.

The same day, reports The Guardian, Boris Johnson told a press conference broadcast on national television: “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.”

The government launches the “contain” phase of its coronavirus action plan, described as “detect early cases, follow up close contacts, and prevent the disease taking hold in this country for as long as is reasonably possible”.

4 March

The scientific advice published by the government says that cancelling large-scale public events wouldn’t contain the outbreak.

Sage advises the government that introducing social distancing measures could potentially decrease the total number of deaths by around 20% to 25%, and substantially reduce the peak of the infection.

10 - 13 March

Cheltenham Festival starts on 10 March. The following day, Liverpool FC play Atletico Madrid at home, bringing thousands of Spanish fans to the UK.

A video posted on Boris Johnson’s twitter feed a few hours before kick-off shows Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer, saying that “expert modellers” have found large events are not seen as “something that will have a big effect”.

On 12 March, the government's chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, tells the BBC’s Today programme that other countries’ “eye-catching” restrictions on mass gatherings were done to reassure the public, not because of scientific reasons, says BuzzFeed.

16 March

Modellers at Imperial College London find critical care capacity in the UK will be overwhelmed by the coronavirus outbreak and 250,000 people will die unless social distancing protocols are put in place, Buzzfeed political editor Alex Wickham reveals.

That afternoon, Johnson advises the public to avoid unnecessary contact and travel and stay away from pubs and theatres.

“Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel. We need people to start working from home where they possibly can. And you should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues,” he says. Pubs and restaurants are ordered to shut four days later.

This is the date that Fergurson now says lockdown rules should have been introduced in the UK, a move that he claims would have resulted in 20,000 fewer deaths.

17 March

Vallance tells a select committee about South Korea’s testing and tracing strategy: “I think that would have been an absolutely brilliant thing to have had in January,” he says. “Public Health England has a capacity of about 4,000 or so [tests] per day. That is clearly not going to be enough going forward,” says Vallance, according to Research Professional News.

18 March

The government announces the closure of all schools until further notice.

23 March

Previous advice on social distancing now becomes legally mandatory. The UK lockdown is announced by Johnson on national television.

“From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction - you must stay at home,” says the prime minister.

26 March

Harries rejects World Health Organisation advice to “test, test, test”, suggesting the WHO advice is aimed at less economically advanced countries, it is “not an appropriate mechanism as we go forward”.

Yvonne Doyle, director of health protection for Public Health England, tells the health select committee the “ship had sailed” on contact tracing by mid-March.

2 April

Health secretary Matt Hancock pledges that the government will carry out 100,000 coronavirus tests by the end of the month, reports FullFact.

6 April

The government admits that none of the 17.5 million coronavirus antibody tests it has bought work, reports the Financial Times.

30 April

NHS England warns that members of the workforce from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds could face greater risk from coronavirus, adding that GP practices should assess these factors in light of “emerging data”.

4 May

GPs are advised to look out for possible cases of Kawasaki disease, a Covid-19-linked syndrome affecting children. Paediatricians compiled a case definition of a related inflammatory syndrome that left a small number of children in intensive care, GP Online reports.

5 May

The UK surpasses Italy to become the country with the highest declared death toll in Europe, with more than 32,000 fatalities.

10 May

Johnson unveils his new “stay alert” slogan, which replaces the original “stay home” message. 

Political leaders in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland stick with the old slogan amid concerns that the new message is ambiguous, an opinion shared by communications and PR experts, PRWeek says.

13 May

The PM urges people who are unable to work from home to go back to their jobs, while maintaining social distancing. 

People are allowed out of their houses for unlimited exercise and to meet one other person outdoors, as long as they stay 2m away. Garden centres reopen.

22 May

Quarantine measures are announced, requiring people arriving in the UK to self-isolate for 14 days from 8 June to help slow the spread of coronavirus. Travellers will need to tell the government where they will quarantine, with enforcement through random spot checks and £1,000 fines in England.

The government is also plunged into crisis over the behaviour of senior adviser Dominic Cummings, who breached lockdown measures during a trip to Castle Barnard, near Durham.

1 June

Despite a row with teaching unions, the government reopens schools for all reception, year one and year six pupils. 

“Groups of six people are now allowed to meet in parks and even in people’s back gardens,” the i newspaper reports.

10 June

As the UK death toll tops 40,000, Professor Neil Ferguson, who quit his role as a scientific adviser to the government in May, tells the Science and Technology Committee that deaths would have been 50% lower if lockdown had been introduced a week earlier.

On the same day, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts that Britain will suffer more economic damage than any other country in the developed world.

13 June

The first “social bubble” scheme is announced, in which single person households are allowed to meet and stay overnight with another household. It means single grandparents or couples living in separate households are able to meet and stay indoors for the first time in weeks.

15 June

Non-essential shops reopen in England, along with zoos, safari parks and places of worship. Rules are introduced ordering passengers to wear face masks on public transport in England.

18 June

The government is forced to perform a U-turn over its tracing app and to work with tech giants Apple and Google.

23 June

The prime minister announces that from 4 July, social distancing rules will be relaxed to a “one-metre plus” rule as pubs, cinemas and restaurants will reopen.

29 June

Following a spike in cases in Leicester, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announces the reintroduction of stricter lockdown measures for the city.

3 July

The UK government publishes a list of 59 countries for which quarantine will not apply for people arriving back in England. They include Greece, France, Belgium and Spain, but Portugal and the US are among those not on the list. 

4 July

The Health Protection Regulations 2020 come into force in England, replacing and relaxing the previous lockdown regulations and giving the Secretary of State powers to make declarations restricting access to public outdoor places.

6 July

The NHS predicts that delays to cancer diagnosis and treatment due to coronavirus could cause thousands of excess deaths in the UK within a year.

According to the BBC, scientists suggest there could be “at least 7,000 additional deaths - but in a worst case scenario that number could be as high as 35,000”.

8 July

Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveils a £30bn spending package aimed at mitigating the economic impact of the pandemic, including a temporary reduction in VAT for the hospitality sector, a scheme to pay firms £1,000 for each employee brought back from furlough and a temporary rise in the stamp duty threshold.

11 July

As part of the easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions, swimmers can visit outdoor pools and waterparks.

13 July 

Nail bars, salons, tanning booths, spas, massage parlours, tattoo parlours and body and skin piercing services are allowed to re-open.

15 July

Boris Johnson commits to an “independent inquiry” into the coronavirus pandemic, but adds that now was not the right time for an investigation.

“Of course we will seek to learn the lessons of this pandemic in the future and certainly we will have an independent inquiry into what happened,” he told MPs.

25 July

With little warning, the UK government confirms travellers returning to England from Spain will be required to quarantine for 14 days, after a rise in cases there.

28 July

The number of coronavirus cases in the UK tops 300,000.

2 August

A major incident is declared in Greater Manchester in response to increases in coronavirus infection rates across “multiple localities”.

12 August

A review of how deaths from coronavirus are counted in England reduces the UK death toll by more than 5,000, the BBC reports. The recalculation is based on a new definition of who has died from Covid, as previously people in England who died at any point following a positive test, regardless of cause, were counted in the figures.

The same day, figures from the ONS confirm that the UK is in its worst recession since records began.

13 August

The government confirms that France will be removed from the UK’s travel corridor after a surge in cases, leaving British holidaymakers with 30 hours to make it home and avoid 14 days of mandatory isolation.

On A-level results day teachers have almost 40% of their A-level assessments downgraded due to an algorithm that used schools’ past performances to help determine their students’ grades.

18 August

Matt Hancock confirms that Public Health England, the body tasked with shaping England’s coronavirus response, will be scrapped and replaced with a new organisation with a central focus on external threats to public health, such as pandemics.

22 August

In response to an uptick in illegal raves, the government says fines of up to £10,000 will be handed out to those caught organising unlawful gatherings.

25 August

Johnson makes a last-minute U-turn on the wearing of masks in secondary schools, saying the government will no longer advise against their use. Instead, it will be left at the headteacher’s discretion. For staff and pupils in local lockdown areas, they will be mandatory in corridors.

27 August

The UK records the highest number of daily new coronavirus cases since early June, with a reported 1,522 positive cases.

29 August

Anti-lockdown protesters, as well as anti-vaccination campaigners and coronavirus sceptics, stage a rally in Trafalgar Square demanding restrictions be eased.

1 September

300,000 children in Northern Ireland return to their classroom for the first time since lockdown was enforced. Millions more in England and Wales heading back during the rest of the week.

Human trials for Oxford University’s vaccine begin in the US, the BBC reports.

2 September

Johnson declines to meet a coronavirus victim support group. Representing 1,600 families, Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK are pressing for a Covid-19 inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic and want to meet with the prime minister.

The Guardian reports that Johnson has said he will do so once their “litigation” with the government is completed, but the group claim their letters and lobbying thus far do not constitute legal action.

6 September

A total of 2,988 cases of coronavirus are reported in the UK, the largest daily figure since 22 May, prompting fears of a second wave of the virus.

8 September

Two days later, Matt Hancock warns of a possible second peak following a “concerning” rise in the number of cases.

11 September

The R value, which measures the virus’s ability to spread, rises above 1 across the UK for the first time since early March.

14 September

Social gatherings of more than six people are made illegal in England as the government seeks to curb the rise in coronavirus cases.

24 September

More than one million people download the government’s new contact-tracing app for England and Wales within its first day of release. The app instructs users to self-isolate for 14 days if it detects they were nearby someone who has the virus.

Sky News, however, reports that within just a handful of days, the app’s developers admitted it had not been able to link more than 60,000 coronavirus tests carried out in England on Friday - just under a third of the total - to its systems.

28 September

The global tally hits one million deaths. The UK is at 42,000 deaths and 441,000 cases.

29 September

The UK records 7,143 confirmed coronavirus cases in 24 hours, the highest total since 1 July.

A new lockdown rule, making it illegal for households to mix indoors, including in pubs, is introduced in the northeast of England, affecting two million people.

However, Johnson comes under fire for his confusing explanation of the plans, claiming he “misspoke” when failing to clarify whether the restrictions applied to outdoor settings such as pub beer gardens.

1 October

A major study by researchers at Imperial College London finds that growth in cases of coronavirus may be slowing down in the UK. The team said the R number appears to have fallen since the introduction of restrictions including the controversial “rule of six”.

2 October

A further 6,968 cases and 66 deaths are recorded and the R number rises to between 1.3 and 1.6.

The Department of Health says it is working on a fix for the NHS Track-and-Trace app after users complain that potentially important phone alerts from the app disappear before they can open them.

4 October

The total number of coronavirus cases recorded in the UK jumps by almost 23,000 as a result of a glitch in the NHS Track-and-Trace app.

After these cases were added to the official figures, the daily total for the UK rose by a record 12,872 on 3 October, followed by an even bigger spike of 22,961 the following day.

5 October

Chancellor Rishi Sunak tells the Conservative Party conference that he will “balance the books” following increased spending during the pandemic.

He said the party could not argue there was “no limit on what we can spend”, nor that “we can simply borrow our way out of any hole”.

11 October

The UK records 224,000 new coronavirus cases in a week as Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van Tam warns the UK is at the “tipping point” of its Covid-19 crisis. 

14 October

England moves to a “three-tier” Covid system, with areas separated based on infection rates and subject to different lockdown restrictions. 

The Liverpool City Region, which had 669.5 cases per 100,000 people at the time of the move, is immediately put into Tier 3. Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster announces a four week lockdown.

20 October

Talks between Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and the government to negotiate a Covid support package for the city break down. The government confirms that £60m will still be made available for the city. 

23 October

Wales commences two week-long “firebreak” lockdown, with all residents required to stay at home as much as possible. 1,197 new cases are recorded on the day restrictions are tightened. 

31 October

Johnson confirms furlough scheme, which was due to finish at the end of the month, will be extended through the month of November as a second national lockdown for England is announced. 

2 November

Liverpool announces it will pioneer UK’s first attempt at mass testing, with over half a million people set to be swabbed in the city-wide operation. 

5 November

England enters second national lockdown as cases continue to surge, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remaining under their own restrictions. 

10 November

An initial analysis of a coronavirus vaccine developed by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech suggests their candidate is 90% effective in protecting against the virus

11 November

UK becomes the first country in Europe to pass 50,000 Covid deaths after a further 22,950 cases and 595 deaths are recorded.

23 November

Trials show that the Covid vaccine developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca is 70% effective on the same day that the government publishes its three-tier system for coronavirus restrictions.

29 November

Nadhim Zahawi is appointed as Covid vaccine deployment minister.

2 December 

The three-tier system of Covid restrictions come into force as the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, making the UK the first country in the world to approve a coronavirus vaccination.

8 December

90 year-old Margaret Keenan becomes the first person to receive a Covid vaccine outside a clinical trial. She will later receive her second dose on 29 December.

19 December

Johnson announces that a planned relaxation of Covid rules over the Christmas period will be scrapped for large parts of south-east England, and cut to just Christmas Day for the rest of England. New “tier four” measures are applied to London, Kent, Essex, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, to try to control the spread of a new variant of the virus.

4 January 2021

Johnson announces new national lockdown measures for England due to the spread of a new variant that he describes as “both frustrating and alarming”. Brian Pinker, 82, becomes the first person to receive the Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine outside a trial.

13 January 2021

Government figures show that more than 100,000 people have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test in the UK. 

21 January 2021

The government announces mandatory hotel quarantine for people travelling to the UK from a list of high-risk countries. 

1 February 2021

On the anniversary of the first confirmed Covid case, the government announces that all older people in eligible English care homes have been offered a coronavirus jab - and that just under 600,000 vaccinations were administered on the last day of January.

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