politics

20 May 2020: what was UK doing while No 10 aide organised a party?


To many, May 2020 may feel like a lifetime ago, so much has happened in the last 20 months of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On 20 May 2020, when the prime minister’s private secretary was inviting colleagues to bring their own booze for socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden to “make the most of this lovely weather”, the rest of the country was in a very different position.

There was no mixing indoors, non-essential shops were shut, and pubs and other hospitality businesses remained closed.

Such was the strangeness of the times, that people were ecstatically celebrating the reopening of McDonald’s drive-throughs as more than 30 branches trialled a gradual reopening of the fast-food chain.

Hour-long queues as McDonald's reopens drive-through restaurants – video
Hour-long queues as McDonald’s reopens drive-through restaurants – video

The prime minister had only recently announced a slight relaxing to the lockdown rules – from 13 May 2020, two people from separate households were permitted to meet outside in a public place, such as a park, provided they stayed 2 metres apart.

Police forces were actively reminding the public to adhere to the rule, a challenge given 20 May 2020 was the hottest day of the year so far.

Just two days later, on 22 May 2020, the Guardian published its first exclusive revealing police had spoken to the prime minister’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings, about breaching the government’s lockdown rules after he was seen in Durham, 264 miles from his London home, despite having had Covid-19 symptoms. The story prompted an outcry.

Guidance allowing the “rule of six” outdoors was not brought in until June 2020 and large gatherings remained banned.

Oliver Dowden addresses the public on coronavirus measures on 20 May 2020 – video
Oliver Dowden addresses the public on coronavirus measures on 20 May 2020 – video

All of this was reinforced by the then culture secretary, now Conservative party chair, Oliver Dowden, in the daily Downing Street press conference on 20 May.

He said: “You can meet one person outside your household in an outdoor, public place provided that you stay 2 metres apart.”

But alone, or with your household, “you can now spend time outdoors and exercise as often as you like”.

He reminded viewers of the “step one” changes to the rules, which said those who could not work from home should now speak to their employer about going back to work.

This was all against a backdrop of the ever-rising statistics many have come to know too well. On 20 May 2020, there were 9,953 people in hospital with coronavirus. A further 363 deaths were announced, bringing the total at that point to 35,704.

Dowden announced the launch of the Covid Alert Level System, with its five levels each relating to the level of threat posed by the virus. At the time, the country was preparing to move to level 3 from 4. Twenty months later, we’re back in level 4 after the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus.

Dowden pushed the government’s latest slogan: “stay alert, control the virus, save lives”.

He elaborated on how the public might “stay alert” by working from home if possible, limiting contact with other people, keeping 2 metres apart where possible, washing hands regularly and wearing a face covering in enclosed spaces.

Elsewhere, the prime minister was enraging Britain’s foreign healthcare workforce with his refusal to exempt them from an NHS visa surcharge.

The next day, in the first major U-turn of his premiership, he announced this would no longer apply, capitulating to mounting anger from campaigners and opposition from members of his own party.





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