A Brief Timeline of the UK Government’s Contradictory Coronavirus Messaging

From “Protect the NHS” and “Stay Alert” to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, official COVID-19 advice has been anything but straightforward.
September 23, 2020, 11:52am
A Brief Timeline of the Government's Totally Clear Coronavirus Messaging
A televised briefing by Boris Johnson following Dominic Cummings' statement in May. Photo:Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo

On Tuesday night, Boris Johnson announced to the nation what many knew was inevitable: new, tighter restrictions would be put in place following a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions. Socialising in groups larger than six would be banned, and people are once again encouraged to work from home.

“The iron laws of geometrical progression are shouting at us from the graphs that we risk many more deaths,” Johnson said, threatening increased fines of £10,000 for rule breakers.

This is an ever so slightly different message to the one the government had been pedalling just two months earlier, when Johnson promised “significant normality” by Christmas. So, what happened? How has the government’s advice on COVID-19 evolved, and how many times has it changed its mind before? Here is a timeline of the often contradictory official advice Britain has been subject to since the start of the pandemic.

March and April

At the beginning of March, Boris Johnson’s main public health message is that people should wash their hands while singing “Happy Birthday” twice. He boasts about shaking hands “with everybody” at a hospital with confirmed coronavirus patients, even as his advisors warn people not to use the greeting.

By late March, lockdown is declared. Britons are told that they should only leave their homes if it is absolutely essential. Outdoor exercise is limited to once per day.

Forget “Take Back Control” or even “Get Brexit Done”, the government’s new phrase – “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” – is repeated ad nauseum by anyone with an ounce of authority. Even Doctor Who records a video uttering the phrase.


The government announces an easing of lockdown measures. For the first time in weeks, people can leave their homes more than once a day, and go to the park without risk of arrest.

But ministers appear to be worried that the British people have internalised the “Stay Home” message too wholeheartedly. The official government line changes to a milder “Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives” – just don’t ask exactly what “staying alert” means.


Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings dominates the headlines for over a week, as news that he broke lockdown rules to travel to 264 miles to Durham while believing he had the virus emerges. In a public statement, Cummings explains that an additional 30-mile drive to the town of Barnard Castle was in order to test his eyesight in case it had been affected by the virus. Ministers stretch credibility to defend him, sending the clearest message yet from the government to the public.

Johnson says that Britain will have a “world-beating” track-and-trace system by June.


Things go from bad to worse for the government’s contact tracing plans. Matt Hancock finally admits defeat, and announces that the app will go back to the drawing board.


Further easing of COVID-19 restrictions allows pubs to re-open for the first time. Celebrating the measures, Johnson urges Britons to “do their patriotic best” by going for a pint.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announces the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, which sees the government subsidise meals in restaurants during August to up to £10 on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights.


The government pulls a screeching U-turn, conceding that wearing masks in schools is probably a good idea.

Britons continue to return to normal. Eat Out To Help Out proves incredibly popular. According to the Treasury, over 64 million meals are claimed by restaurants as part of the scheme. It is hailed as a brilliant success that will in no way come back to haunt the government.


Cinemas are allowed to reopen by the end of the month. Plans are announced to bring back live audiences at sporting events in October.

As deaths hit new lows of just single digits per day, the government begins to encourage people to return to office. “Go back to work or risk losing your job”, reads one memorable Telegraph front page.


Coronavirus cases start to rise again. Time for a new government slogan: “Hands, Face, Space”. Aimed at reminding Britons to wash their hands, cover their face and social distance, it does not appear to catch on.

As a result of the increasing numbers, the government toughens up the rules again. The “rule of six” is introduced, reducing the number of people allowed to gather at any one time from 30 to six.

Home Secretary Priti Patel says that she would report neighbours to the police for breaking the new rules, while Johnson says he wouldn’t, unless there was some kind of “Animal House party” taking place.

Britons are once again told to work from home if they can. Plans to bring back live sports are scrapped. Pubs have now been ordered to close at 10PM, with the threat of further restrictions if the situation worsens.

The government’s long-awaited track-and-trace app is set to arrive, months later than expected. Less advanced than those developed in other countries, users must manually scan a QR code with the app when they visit a shop or hospitality venue.