Insiders On What Happened in the Days Before Britain’s First Lockdown

MPs, public health experts and attendees of the Cheltenham Races remember the fraught days leading up to the 23rd of March 2020.
illustrated by Joel Benjamin
March 22, 2021, 9:15am
Insiders On What Happened in the Days Before Britain’s First Lockdown
To mark 12 months since the first UK lockdown, we're looking back at the year that's been.

A year ago today, the UK was on the brink of the biggest crisis since the Second World War, and yet among politicians and the general public, there was a sense of complacency. We were sleepwalking into calamity, and we did not yet realise it.

This is the untold story of how the UK went into lockdown in those febrile days in March, when you couldn’t buy hand sanitiser for love nor money and the nation’s supermarkets ran out of bog roll.


Boris Johnson unveils the government’s emergency COVID plans at a press conference. During it, he boasts of shaking hands with patients at a hospital that was treating coronavirus patients. 

Mark Easton, BBC News home editor: The prime minister exemplified this sense that the UK was not like Japan, we don’t wear masks or stop shaking hands because there’s a bug going about. That was the mood music coming out of Number 10.

Photo: Chris Bethell

Photo: Chris Bethell


Supermarkets begin to be hit by panic buying. Online booking systems for home delivery crash. Loo roll and tinned goods sell out. Tesco imposes restrictions on the sale of essential items. 

James Quayle, North Paddington Food Bank in London: From March onwards, I started working seven days a week for months. I’d be getting up at 5AM in the morning and coming back at 10PM. I was literally giving volunteers jobs on the spot. We lost our access to the supermarkets where we would normally purchase most of our food. We were treated like other customers. We had to really grind to get food. Only Waitrose would let us place a bulk order. People were contacting us, not knowing what to do. Lots of older people who’d normally shop at corner shops were now finding they’d sold out of food. People were calling us, worried about their parents or grandparents. We became a safety net, for people living in the area. Getting hold of masks was also impossible. I managed to find a person who had contacts in Hong Kong, and they sent some over. It was the only way we could get PPE.


The FTSE 100 plunges by more than 8 percent, its biggest fall since the 2008 financial crisis. Lloyd Russell-Moyle is the second member of Parliament to catch COVID, after health minister Nadine Dorries. He will test positive on the 18th of March, after waiting for six days for his test results. 

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, MP: I was in a meeting at Parliament and started feeling hot and cold and groggy. By that point, we knew that if we started feeling unwell, we should self-isolate. I called 111, and said, “What should I do?” They told me to make my way home, but the problem was that I live in Brighton. They said to get the train home, but sit in the first class carriage and don’t let anyone else in. So, that’s what I did. I barricaded the first class compartment and didn’t let anyone else in. Someone came and took my test the following day, but the results didn’t come through for almost a week. I was in bed, watching everything unfold on TV. It was clear that the country was not handling things well. Testing and tracing had fallen apart. 


Cardi B posts a video on Instagram about coronavirus. “Shit is getting real,” she ad-libs. Brooklyn DJ and producer iMarkkeyz turns her video into a track which charts at number eight in the iTunes charts. 

iMarkkeyz: I made the track in like ten minutes, because I already had the beat ready. I thought, you know what, her voice really fits with that beat. The response was dope. Cardi was hyped about it. She hit me up and said, “You dope.” Shit really was getting real. People started dying, left and right. It really was getting real. Because it [COVID] wasn’t taken care of the way it was supposed to be. It could have been dealt with a lot better.


Between the 10th and 13th of March. 251,000 people attend the Cheltenham Races

Ian Webb, 38, who works for an electrical wholesaler from Gloucester:  We sort of joked about COVID at the races, saying, “This is probably a COVID hotspot” – that kind of thing. One guy shook someone else’s hand and we all went, “Ooh, COVID!’ No one realised how serious it was. We were in the corporate hospitality section: there were probably about 500 people in the room. There was a bit of hand sanitiser around, but not on every table. By the betting terminals and the stands, it was rammed. People were standing shoulder to shoulder. My view looking back is that it shouldn’t have happened. They should have shut it down sooner. But I feel probably too much money changed hands to shut it down at the time. 


Chancellor Rishi Sunak announces a £30 billion package to protect the economy from the impact of COVID in his Budget. By the 17th of March, Sunak will make available an extra £330 billion in funding. In an interview, SAGE member and chief executive of the government’s behavioural nudge unit Dr. David Halpern tells the BBC’s Mark Easton that there is a plan to “cocoon” those in at-risk groups until the rest of the population achieves “herd immunity.” The policy is hugely controversial and provokes nationwide debate. 

Mark Easton: At that time, we were all trying to work out what was coming down the track. There was a real sense that we were still working out what our national response to this challenge should be. The herd immunity phrase that Halpern says was really only one line in the interview. I was more interested in how the government planned to encourage people to behave differently – that was my focus. And then suddenly Halpern used the phrase “herd immunity”, and my eyebrows did raise. Within a week, no one in government was talking about herd immunity. They feared a public relations disaster if their critics could accuse them of being prepared to let people contract COVID, because some people would inevitably die from the disease. The interview opens a window into a time when government thinking in response to the virus was very different. It forms an important part of the historical record. 

50,000 people, including 3,000 Spanish fans, who have travelled from a currently locked-down Madrid, pack into Anfield Stadium to watch Liverpool play Atlético Madrid.


James McCarthy, 65, an accountant from Liverpool:  The Atlético fans couldn’t believe they were allowed to come here. They weren’t allowed to move about in Spain. I was in the Kenny Dalglish stand, upper tier.  On my left were about 600 away fans who were very noisy in the first half, to the extent people were arguing with them to be quiet and stuff. Halftime comes and there’s this huge rush to the toilet. The entrances are very small. About two people can pass without touching, but most people brush against the person coming out as you go in. It was jammed. We’re talking, body to body. I remember there were about six Spanish fans standing next to me, body to body. The guy in front of me turns around to talk to the people behind me. He’s six inches in front of my face, talking to the people all around me. When I got home I was really worried and I said to my partner Jacqui, Listen, if anything happens to me, it’s because of what happened tonight. I was that concerned about it. I really panicked. 

Later that evening, on Newsnight, Professor John Ashton warns that the UK is sleepwalking into a catastrophe.

Professor John Ashton CBE, public health expert and author of Blinded by Corona: I flew back into the UK on the morning of the 11th of March. I’d been in Bahrain, advising the government on their COVID preparedness. I’d gone around hospitals, prisons, housing estates, hospitals, testing labs. The Crown Prince was on top of things. He wanted me to critique what they were doing. And then I came back to the UK, and Cheltenham was going ahead. There were football matches. Pop concerts. The British government was not taking it seriously, at all. I was agitated about it, and quite emotional, actually. I went on Newsnight that evening, and said that I was tearing my hair out. I told the host, we should have gotten a grip on this a month ago. The following day, I went on Question Time and said the same thing, and the government advisor they had on was so patronising and arrogant to me. That was the week that everything was going wrong. The government was floating this stupid idea about herd immunity. Within a week, the government would have to do a complete U-turn. 


Sir Patrick Vallance tells Sky News’ Stephen Dixon that 60 percent of Brits will need to become infected with COVID-19 before the UK enjoys “herd immunity.”

Stephen Dixon: There had been a bit of vague talk about herd immunity, which is why I decided to ask him about it. To be honest, I remember being surprised at the time by the figures he was quoting – 60 percent worked out at a vast number of people needing to catch COVID. Even if we were talking about a 1 percent death rate, that’s still a lot of people who were going to die. I don’t over-plan my interviews; I like them to be a conversation as much as possible. I wasn’t trying to score a big goal. I didn’t see the comment as particularly significant at the time. But it did prove to be very significant in the long term. 

Photo: Chris Bethell

Photo: Chris Bethell


541 academics sign a letter to the UK government, calling on them to scrap any planned “herd immunity” policy, and implement social distancing measures with immediate effect. 

Professor Willem Van Schaik of the University of Birmingham: I signed the letter because there was a widely felt concern that the virus was already spreading significantly in the UK. And the government was not planning accordingly. We’d had that famous press conference with Boris Johnson saying he shook hands with everyone. The messaging was completely off. On a personal level, I’d recently had the experience of queueing up at a train station to renew my season ticket. In front of me were a couple in their sixties, asking how they can travel to the Cheltenham festival by train. I thought, they shouldn’t be doing this. One of my colleagues had just fallen ill with suspected COVID, although she couldn’t get a test as there weren’t any. All of these things signalled to me on a personal and professional level that the problem was much bigger than the government was communicating it to be. I felt the letter made that point very clearly. Herd immunity – how can I phrase this diplomatically? There has never been a situation where allowing people to catch a potentially deadly disease has actually worked. The underlying message the government was giving was, “Let’s let this rip.”

Also on the 14th of March, 681 behavioural scientists and academics publish a separate open letter, expressing concern about the delay of social distancing measures, and warning the government that “behavioural fatigue” is not a concept born-out in scientific literature. 

Professor Ulrike Hahn of Birkbeck University: I’d never done an open letter before. It’s not the sort of thing I would ever normally do, or like to be doing. I’m a researcher – I stay away from policy decisions. But I was extremely concerned about what was going on out there. It was clear we were moving too slowly towards a lockdown. Cases were increasing exponentially every day we delayed. And the reason coming out of the government for delaying the lockdown seemed to be this concern about “behavioural fatigue.” As a behavioural scientist, this term wasn’t a technical term I was familiar with. That was the purpose of our open letter: to say, “If you’re basing your policy on this term, then we’re worried. Let’s have an open exchange about what your thinking is, and the evidence base for it.”


In the wake of mass panic buying, the bosses of the UK’s biggest supermarkets ask the public to stop panic buying. 

Warren*, a supermarket worker based in Gloucester: The worst was the toilet roll. I never really understood the toilet roll thing because the virus didn’t affect your bowels or stomach. They started bringing out the toilet roll pallets at my supermarket at about 10PM. People worked out what time it was being brought out, and they’d all be standing around and really get stuck in. It was quite a sight to behold. Even my colleagues were panic buying. I tried to talk sense into them. I said, “You know there isn’t a shortage of toilet roll?” But when people get something into their minds, they become blinkered and you can’t get through to them.

After the toilet roll was the home baking stuff, although that came a bit later. Nothing much changed for us in stores. The first thing for us to come in was the arrows, directing people around the store. Then there were the restrictions on the number of items that people could buy. It took a really long time for our bosses to bring in screens and PPE and provide us with masks. 

Photo: Chris Bethell

Photo: Chris Bethell


Sky News publishes a bombshell report from inside a COVID ward in Bergamo, Italy. The images of stricken patients gasping for air inside bubble helmets make headlines around the world. 

Stuart Ramsay, chief Sky correspondent: The night before we went into the hospital, we had a conference call with our deputy head of news. He was thinking of pulling us out. He said, “We don’t know how dangerous it is.” I managed to persuade him to let us stay. All of us expected it to be bad, but we had no idea how bad it would be. When we got to the hospital, a doctor took us into what was an emergency admissions room. It was only geared up for minor operations, but it looked like an ICU, with this controlled sense of panic. I thought, this looks like [the movie] Contagion. There was this sense of being in a warzone. Doctors and nurses could not stop for one moment, moving from one patient to another. People were gasping for air on gurneys. When I left the hospital, I went home, showered, called my family, and told them: “This thing is terrible, and it’s coming to the UK.”


It was probably the most important story I will ever do. I’ve been taken hostage, shot at, gone undercover, but the difference with this was that all the danger and jeopardy I was used to finding myself in during the course of my job was about to affect everyone I knew and held dear. I realised there was no way we could stop it coming for us. And it felt like no one was listening to what was going on. Italy had been calling for help for the EU for days and nothing was coming. Meanwhile, the UK was carrying on with Cheltenham Festival and football matches and all the rest of it. It was coming our way, and no one seemed to realise it. That felt a bit overwhelming. But as soon as we got the story out, the reaction was overwhelming. 


As rumours swirl of an imminent nationwide lockdown, thousands descend on our national parks. 

Helen Pye, Snowdonia National Park: I have worked in national parks for over ten years, and I have never seen anything like that weekend. It was like a last-ditch for freedom. All the car parks were full. People were parking like it was a festival, all over the place. The highway into the park was just a single lane of cars full of people, all jammed up behind each other, trying to get in. It backed up all the way down the road. There’s only 22,000 people who live in Snowdonia. It’s a small rural community. It was really scary for the locals. We knew there was a pandemic, but no one was certain how it spread. There was a huge backlash to the fact that people had travelled to Snowdonia, and a sense of anger, and fear. I remember one car was abandoned in one of our car parks. The locals blocked it in, with signs reading, “Go home.”


International borders begin to close to foreign travel. 

Stacey Bungay: I’d flown to New Zealand on holiday at the beginning of March, with my family. On the 22nd of March, we were on our way to the airport in Auckland when the border in Singapore closed. We were meant to be transiting through Singapore airport. We literally got an email from Air New Zealand in the transit bus en route to the airport. We thought it would be pretty easy to just book another flight home at the airport, but it seemed that everywhere was shutting their borders to international travel.


The airport set aside a special room for representatives of the UK embassy to come and give us advice. We waited in that room with other British nationals for six hours for someone to show up, and then gave up and went back to our Airbnb. Prices were going crazy. I saw flights back to the UK for £15,000 one-way, for one person. For the next week, my family and I would wake up at stupid o’clock in the morning to check flights, thinking they might be cheaper then, when less people were searching for them. We were checking the flight schedules six times a day. The foreign office didn’t give us any help or lay on charter flights for us home. Eventually, my mum found a flight via Malaysia. It was £1,200, but we were desperate to get home, so we booked it. Even when we landed in Malaysia, we were panicky. We thought, knowing our luck, we’ll get to Malaysia and flights will be cancelled, and we’ll be stuck there. We touched down at Heathrow airport on the 4th of April, nearly two weeks after we’d planned to return. It was mixed emotions, coming home. We were happy to be home, but at the same time it felt like, what have we returned to? 


In a televised speech, Boris Johnson announces the UK is entering a nationwide lockdown. 

Stephen Dixon: Everyone knew it was coming – there’s always backroom chatter, and the news room knew something was coming. But even so, it was shocking to hear it. 

Ian Webb: Literally the day that Boris had his announcement at 8PM, I wasn’t feeling too good. I remember watching Boris lock down at home and feeling rough. I lost my sense of taste and smell. I’d drink tea and it didn’t even taste like hot water. Bacon Frazzles tasted of nothing. It was weird. 

Mark Easton: I remember going out onto the street that day, and walking down to Oxford Circus from Broadcasting House. I went down to Trafalgar Square, and into the city. It was so weird. It was empty. I thought, my goodness. This is off the wall. What is going on. There was a chap with his camera, live-streaming onto his YouTube channel about what was happening. There was someone else saying, “This is fake news!” Already the conspiracy theories were out there. By Piccadilly Circus there was an evangelical preacher with a megaphone, saying that the only way to protect yourself from COVID was to pray. It was all so strange and quite hard to understand, and know where everything was going to go. We were in completely unchartered territory. All the usual rules didn’t apply.