Behind the scenes

From vaccine passports to lockdowns: Boris Johnson’s five biggest U-turns on Covid

The introduction of vaccine passports for clubbers is the latest U-turn from Johnson’s Covid-embattled government

Boris Johnson has announced that so-called “vaccine passports” will be compulsory for busy venues like nightclubs later in the year, in a significant U-turn that was slammed as an “absolute shambles” by industry leaders.

It is the latest policy reversal in a long line of about-turns from the government throughout the pandemic. The Week takes a look at the five most significant of the last 16 months. 

1. Vaccine passports

Just hours after clubs were allowed to open for the first time since the pandemic began, Johnson “ripped up” his government’s opposition to mandatory domestic vaccine passports by announcing plans to make “full vaccination a condition of entry” to nightclubs and other venues “where large crowds gather”, from late September, reports the London Playbook.

The government has on several occasions voiced its opposition to domestic Covid passports, with Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi tweeting in January: “We have no plans to introduce vaccine passports… No one has been given or will be required to have a vaccine passport”. 

It is a move that has provoked “an immediate backlash” from Conservative backbenchers and entertainment sector leaders alike, reports The Guardian

“What an absolute shambles,” Michael Kill, the chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, told the paper. “The government’s own report into vaccine passports found they were more trouble than they’re worth – so what could possibly explain the about-turn, just as millions across the UK experience their first taste of a night out in a year and a half?”

2. Johnson and Sunak's pilot scheme

The vaccination passport about-turn came just days after “one of the fastest government U-turns ever”, writes the BBC’s Nick Eardley, referring to the decision made by Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak to isolate after coming into contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for coronavirus on Saturday.

No. 10 initially said they would not isolate as they were taking part in a pilot scheme that involved daily testing. But Johnson and Sunak were forced to “perform a full reversal little more than two-and-a-half-hours” later, as outrage grew on social media and opposition parties suggested there was “one rule for them and another for the rest of us”, reports Sky News.

The row lasted long enough to be dubbed “Barnard Castle on steroids” said the broadcaster, but a U-turn quickly followed. 

“Whilst the test and trace pilot is fairly restrictive, allowing only essential government business, I recognise that even the sense that the rules aren’t the same for everyone is wrong,” wrote Rishi Sunak in a tweet signalling their climbdown. 

Indeed, it was this sense of unfairness that proved to be a real sticking point: “the PM and chancellor had the choice over whether to isolate”, notes Eardley. “Most people don't at the moment.”

2. Free school meals

The government was forced into two significant U-turns over free school meal provisions by the Manchester United and England player Marcus Rashford.

After weeks of “digging in his heels and refusing to cede to calls” to extend free school meals to low-income children during school holidays in England, Johnson “once again bowed to the better judgment of a 23-year-old footballer” in November 2020, reports The Guardian. He announced a £170m Covid winter grant scheme package to support vulnerable families in England, and an extension of the holiday activities and food programme to the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks into 2021.

Ministers had stood firm on the issue for weeks – even whipping Conservative MPs to vote against the provision of free school meals. 

It was the second time the football star “had forced the government to change course this year”, wrote the paper – after guidance from the Department of Education told schools they did not have to provide lunch parcels or vouchers over the February half term.

4. Face covering rules 

It’s easy to forget – 16 months into a global pandemic – that there was little consensus in England on the effectiveness of face masks in preventing the spread of Covid-19. 

In the UK, Scotland was first to advise its citizens to wear coverings on public transport and shops in April 2020. But in England, then-health secretary Matt Hancock argued there was only “weak science” to support wearing a face covering as a tool to stop the spread of the illness. 

After weeks of insisting there was little evidence to support making face masks compulsory, the government performed a “volte-face” on the issue in July that served as a “textbook example of how to bungle an announcement”, wrote Alain Tolhurst in PoliticsHome.

It was “chaotically” handled, with the prime minister signalling stricter rules on face coverings were coming on 12 July, only for Michael Gove to say two days later that it should not be mandatory.

On 14 July, Hancock announced face masks would be a legal requirement in shops and supermarkets from 24 July 2020. 

5. Christmas bubbles

Johnson ended the festive plans of millions in England after reversing plans to relax social distancing rules over the Christmas period. 

Hopes were high that festivities with family members from different households would go ahead, after repeated reassurance from the prime minister and other members of government.

“I want to be clear, we don't want to ban Christmas,” Johnson told a press conference on 16 December. “And I think that would be frankly inhuman and against the instincts of many people in this country.”

Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick had also said the government couldn’t “legislate for every eventuality” and so the Christmas relaxation rules would remain “unchanged”, despite calls for them to be toughened amid rising Covid cases, reports the BBC.

But relaxation rules were scrapped entirely for large parts of the south-east, while for the rest of England, households were only able to mix on Christmas Day. 

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