UK Country Report

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Coronavirus (COVID-19) has had tragic implications for the United Kingdom (UK). At the time of writing there have been over 49,000 fatalities due to the disease.1 This has translated into discontent with the government’s handling of the pandemic. Indeed, fifty-six percent of Britons believe COVID-19 has been badly handled by the UK government.2 It has also often been suggested that the country is amongst the worst hit globally by the pandemic.3 While comparisons between countries can be misleading due to context-specific factors (e.g. population density, variations in reporting methodologies), it is clear that COVID-19 has had severe negative impacts on the UK. This also makes the country particularly important to consider when assessing policies pursued by governments in response to COVID-19.

The first reported contraction of COVID-19 in the UK occurred on February 29, 2020.4 Initially, the UK government followed an approach to COVID-19 that was inconsistent with the policies pursued by many other European and Asian countries. Specifically, it claimed that restricting mass gatherings would be ineffective at slowing or preventing the spread of the virus. Hence, the country did not impose any significant restrictions and instead merely advised individuals to regularly wash their hands.5 The UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, claimed on March 12 that the ‘eye-catching’ restrictions imposed in other countries were introduced simply to reassure the public rather than for scientific reasons.6 The following day, he stated that the government’s strategy was to ‘reduce the peak’ and that because most people would suffer only a ‘mild illness’, there was a need to ‘build up some degree of herd immunity . . . so that more people are immune to this disease’ and to ‘reduce the transmission’.7 This approach received significant criticism from both members of the public and scientific experts, with over 200 of the latter publishing an open letter expressing concern at the government’s approach.8

Yet, it was not until a study was released by Imperial College London, which suggested a possible quarter of a million UK deaths due to the virus, that the UK significantly revised its COVID-19 policies.9 On March 16, Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised members of the public to avoid all unnecessary contact with other individuals as well as venturing into pubs and theatres.10 By March 23, all schools in England, Scotland and Wales had closed for an indefinite period. On March 26, a nationwide lockdown was introduced and previous advice (announced on March 16) on social distancing became legally mandatory.11 This change in policy to far more restrictive measures has widely been regarded as effective in terms of reducing COVID-19 cases and deaths. Indeed, one leading scientist even suggested that had a nationwide lockdown been introduced just one week earlier, the UK’s death toll could have been halved.12

Following reduced cases, the UK moved to ease restrictions. Boris Johnson announced on May 10 that residents in England could leave the house more than once per day and that the ‘phased reopening of shops’ would begin.13 However, as the move to ease lockdown restrictions commenced, new problems emerged. First, in contrast to the entry phase into lockdown, exiting from this saw the emergence of considerable disparities in policy approaches taken by the respective governments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The extent of this is illustrated when comparing the different policies in place at the start of October regarding whether individuals can meet friends and family outdoors. In England, the ‘rule of six’ applied, where members of the public cannot meet in groups larger than six, indoors or outdoors, regardless of age. By contrast, in Scotland, up to six people can meet regardless of location but the individuals must be from a maximum of two households with children as an exemption. Meanwhile, in Wales, up to thirty people can meet with no limit on the number of households. Finally, in Northern Ireland, up to fifteen people from different households can meet, but in a private garden no more than six people from two households can meet.14 These complications were also furthered by the imposition of local-level restrictions for towns and administrative regions within the UK which possess high COVID-19 case numbers.15

Unsurprisingly, the growing complexity of restrictions moving out of lockdown made it increasingly difficult for the government to clearly communicate the rules. This is reflected in the fact that under half of those in England report having a ‘broad understanding’ of the restrictions.16 This issue has been exacerbated in England by recurrent policy reversals driven by the conflicting pressures on the government. For example, seeking to boost the economy, on July 11, Boris Johnson urged those in England to go back to work.17 Yet with COVID-19 cases rising again, from September 22, the policy was reversed in England, where the government announced that individuals should work from home where possible.18

Accompanying the easing of restrictions, there have also been several important policy changes made by the UK. Two are particularly noteworthy, namely those regarding face coverings and rules for those entering the UK from abroad. At the start of the pandemic, England’s Chief Medical Officer advised against wearing face masks and this policy was mirrored throughout the UK.19 However, this policy was later reversed. Indeed, face coverings are now compulsory in shops and on public transport throughout the UK.20 Meanwhile, for those entering the UK from abroad, at the start of the pandemic the government did not impose quarantine rules. However, on May 22, it was announced that entrants to the UK would be subject to a blanket fourteen day quarantine from the June 8. However, following frustration amongst the airline industry who were suffering considerable financial losses, this policy was revised. As a result, whether individuals must quarantine upon arrival to the UK depends on the number of COVID-19 infections in the country travelled from. This quarantine advice is updated on a weekly basis.21

Yet arguably, most concerning for the UK is that since the start of September and following the easing of restrictions, the country has been struggling with rising COVID-19 cases and an uptake in weekly recorded deaths. Indeed, with 2,988 new COVID-19 cases recorded on September 6, at the time the highest number of cases recorded since May, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the situation as ‘concerning’.22 It is against this backdrop that the ‘rule of six’ was introduced in England and that, from September 24, pubs and restaurants were forced to close from 10pm.23

Additionally, in order to prepare for a harsh winter ahead, government officials in Wales and Northern Ireland announced ‘circuit breaker’ or ‘firebreak’ lockdowns where everything from schools, shops, pubs to hotels and businesses will be closed to motivate citizens to stay home.24 Circuit breakers are implemented in efforts to reduce the spread of the virus and give a break to the health services.25 The lockdowns are in effect for a duration of two to three weeks starting the week of October 23. Meanwhile, as of October 14, England implemented a new three-tier lockdown system in response to rapidly increasing positive cases. The three-tiers were divided into medium, high and very high, where each tier consists of stricter regulations. These limitations include curfews, restrictions of gatherings of more than six people, travel guidelines, indoor dining restrictions and more.26 However, as a consequence of cases having risen faster than anticipated, England has brought in a nationwide lockdown from the November 5 intended to last one month. The only major difference compared to the first national lockdown is that schools and universities are allowed to continue operating.27

Thus, the pandemic remains far from over in the UK. As is evident from the preceding analysis, the UK’s policy response to COVID-19 has been one of constant revision accompanied with regional fragmentation. While the government in England has sought to introduce clarity with the nationwide lockdown, it also seems likely this process of constant revision will continue.28 Moving ahead, it will also be interesting to see if the contact-tracing app launched by the UK government at the end of September is widely downloaded and effective in combating the virus.29 Sadly, amongst the current uncertainty, one thing is almost certain. For the foreseeable future, COVID-19 will continue to have severely negative social, emotional and economic impacts on the UK population.

  1. UK Government. November 11th, 2020. Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the UK.

  2. Piachaud, Toby and Kate Duxbury. September 6th, 2020. Ipsos MORI.

  3. For example, Lawless, Jill and Danica Kirka. July 17th, 2020. Global News.

  4. BBC News. February 29th, 2020.

  5. BBC News. February 28th, 2020.

  6. The Week. 2020.

  7. Titheradge, Noel and Faye Kirkland. July 20th, 2020. BBC News.

  8. Ghosh, Pallab. March 14th, 2020. BBC News.

  9. Gallagher, James. March 17th, 2020. BBC News.

  10. The Week. March 17th, 2020.

  11. Stewart, Heather, Rowena Mason and Vikram Dodd. March 24th, 2020. The Guardian.

  12. BBC News. June 10th, 2020.

  13. The Independent. September 23rd, 2020.

  14. Institute for Government. 2020.

  15. BBC News. July 31st, 2020.

  16. UCL. July 31st, 2020.

  17. Rayner, Gordon, Camilla Tominey and Charles Hymas. August 27th, 2020. The Telegraph.

  18. Payne, Adam, Thomas Colson and Adam Bienkov. September 22nd, 2020. Business Insider.

  19. Sullivan, Rory. March 4th, 2020.

  20. Institute for Government. 2020.

  21. The Independent. September 23rd, 2020.

  22. BBC News. September 8th, 2020.

  23. Sephton, Connor. September 25th, 2020. Sky News.

  24. Morris, Steven. October 19th, 2020. The Guardian.

  25. Roberts, Grace. October 16th, 2020. The Conversation.

  26. BBC News. October 14th, 2020.

  27. BBC News. November 5th, 2020.

  28. BBC News. July 19th, 2020.

  29. Downey, Andrea. September 24th, 2020.