18 U-Turns Boris Johnson's Government Has Been Forced To Make During The Pandemic

As free school meals are extended into the Christmas holidays, the government has backtracked on more than a dozen of its key policies throughout Covid-19.

It’s been another week where Boris Johnson’s government has abruptly changed its mind on a major policy during the coronavirus pandemic.

Here’s a breakdown of all the about-turns, backtracks and missed targets that have left the public frustrated.

Last week chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the 80% furlough scheme, which sees the government pick up the wage bill for those forced out of work during lockdown, would be extended to March.

This was almost exactly two months after the PM insisted the scheme would not be the answer to help the economy through the pandemic.

“There will always be those who argue for an infinite extension of the furlough scheme and who want to keep people off work, unemployed, being paid very substantial sums for a very long time,” Johnson told MPs in September.

“I don’t think that’s the right thing.

“I think the best way forward for our country is to get people as far as we possibly can back into work.”

As of November 5, England is back under lockdown with the public heavily restricted from leaving home and from mixing with other households.

Previously the government had spent weeks ignoring calls from the scientific community – including its own advisers – to impose a two-week national lockdown.

Instead, it opted for a three-tier system of local alert levels that had led to confusion and frustration across the country.

By the end of October, scientific advisers at the top of government said it was too late for a “circuit breaker” to have an effect and a longer national lockdown would be needed to drive the R-value of the virus down to below 1.

Under the new restrictions, children under school age who are with their parents will not count towards the limit on two people meeting outside. This means parents of young children can meet up with each other.

The initial plans counted a parent and their baby as two people, which would have meant a mother or father would have been unable to meet up with another person while looking after their child.

The government’s U-turn followed calls from MPs to loosen the rules to help combat loneliness among new parents as England goes into lockdown.

Adults who are dependent on round-the-clock care, such as those with severe disabilities, are also exempt from the rule.

In September Michael Gove revealed a “shift in emphasis” on the government’s push for people to return to offices – with the updated emphasis on not actually doing it.

The cabinet office minister said if people could work from home “then we would encourage them to do so.”

He added: “We are stressing that if it is safe to work in your workplace, if you are in a Covid secure workplace, then you should be there if your job requires it.”

Asked if that was a change in government guidance, Gove said “yes”.

Boris Johnson had spent weeks trying to encourage workers to return to offices in an attempt to reinvigorate town and city centres decimated by lockdown.

In August the government performed another U-turn and reversed plans to ease local lockdowns in Greater Manchester.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said following a “significant change” in the level of infection rates in the last few days, Bolton and Trafford would remain under existing restrictions – despite loosening them hours earlier.

It came after Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said easing the guidance restricting social gatherings in people’s homes would be “completely illogical”.

Also in August, the government announced that people on low incomes who live in areas with high coronavirus numbers and were told to self-isolate would be able to claim £13 a day in addition to any other benefits they receive.

Starting with a trial in Blackburn, Darwen, Pendle and Oldham, eligible people who test positive for the virus would receive £130 for their 10-day period of self-isolation.

Other members of their household, who under the current rules have to self-isolate for 14 days, would be entitled to a payment of £182.

The move came after the Labour Party wrote to Rishi Sunak asking for more help for those who would struggle on statutory sick pay, a request the chancellor rejected earlier in August.

After first stating that secondary pupils and staff in local lockdowns wouldn’t have to wear face masks, the government was later forced to backtrack ahead of the start of the Autumn term.

The advice is now that face coverings should be worn when moving around corridors and communal areas.

They will not need to be worn in classrooms, because other protective measures will already be in place and they might affect learning, it added.

Face coverings will not be recommended in schools more widely, the department said, but added that schools will have the discretion to require them to be worn by staff and children in Year 7 and above in communal areas.

The change follows World Health Organisation (WHO) advice that children aged over 12 should wear masks.

In August the eviction ban was extended for four weeks. Ministers also decided landlords will have to give the majority of tenants six months’ notice to protect vulnerable renters hit by the coronavirus crisis from a winter eviction.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government announced the move after charities warned there could be mass evictions around Christmas and said tens of thousands of outgoing tenants could be unable to access affordable homes, prompting a “devastating homelessness crisis”.

Because of how the county court system works, plus the rules around giving renters advance notice of their hearing, the charity Shelter said it did not expect renters to actually be evicted by bailiffs until after September – but courts have now resumed the processing of possession claims.

After holding out for five days, education secretary Gavin Williamson was finally forced to admit defeat and ditch the controversial A-level algorithm that had seen 100,000 students marked down in August.

Ministers announced they would allow for results to be based on teachers’ predicted grades for their students, rather than a “standardisation model” that saw the A-level grades of almost 40% of students downgraded from what they had originally been awarded.

It followed criticism from students and headteachers and complaints from dozens of Tory MPs, and came more than a week after the Scottish government was forced into its own U-turn after a backlash about the moderation system used there.

The government eventually decided to waive heavily-criticised NHS fees being charged to migrant health and care workers on the coronavirus front line.

The government was due to hike the immigration health surcharge from £400 to £624 this October, but in May said it will be scrapped as the Covid-19 crisis gripped the NHS.

The sum had been payable to all overseas workers to use the NHS and from this autumn would have seen a family-of-four hit with a bill as high as £2,500 a year.

Molly Darlington / reuters

England footballer Marcus Rashford was credited as playing a key part in forcing the government to U-turn on its decision not to extend the children’s food voucher scheme into the summer holidays.

On June 16, Cabinet minister Grant Shapps said that free school meals are not normally extended to cover the summer period.

Yet a few hours later, No 10 backtracked on its stance, confirming that it would in fact extend the programme.

Speaking on Sky News the next day, health secretary Matt Hancock mistakenly praised “Daniel Rashford” for his campaigning efforts.

Having said it would provide free school meals over the summer holidays, the government then voted in October against a Labour motion to extend the provision into the half-term and Christmas holidays.

The vote by 322 Tory MPs sparked a huge backlash and public anger, with businesses and councils across the country stepping into the breach and announcing they would fund meals during the half-term break for those who needed them.

A petition by England footballer Marcus Rashford for pupils in disadvantaged families to have their meals paid for during the holidays went on to attract more than one million signatures – mass backing which piled pressure on Downing Street to commit to more support.

The money will pay for the Covid Winter Grant Scheme to support families over the season while the Holiday Activities and Food programme will be extended to cover the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks in 2021, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced.

In early May, Williamson set out the government’s ambition that all primary-age children in England would have at least four weeks in school before the summer.

But on June 9, he said there was “no choice” but to scrap those plans amid concerns that the two-metre social distancing rule would make a full return impossible.

In August, the government said that its plans would be for all pupils, in all year groups, to return to school full-time from the beginning of the autumn term.

Schools have been required to implement measures including enhanced cleaning procedures, more frequent hand-washing, and keeping pupils and family members with Covid-19 symptoms away, as they return.

A new NHSX app for contact tracing was announced by health secretary Matt Hancock on April 12, pledging that it would be “crucial” for preventing the transmission of coronavirus.

The app was trialled on the Isle of Wight with a view to it being rolled out more widely across the country in May.

However, on June 18, the government abandoned plans for its own app, instead allowing Apple and Google to take over the project.

On August 13, a trial of the new app was announced, again involving the Isle of Wight as well as NHS volunteer respondents in the UK.

The government said the technology would be released on September 24, but was again forced to issue a correction after incorrectly stating in the announcement that the app wouldn’t actually be able to do the contact tracing it was designed for.

Hours after the announcement was made, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) issued a statement insisting contact tracing would be `“at the heart of the NHS Covid-19 app”.

Bereavement scheme to NHS support staff

After criticism that care workers, cleaners and porters were being excluded from a Home Office scheme granting families of health workers indefinite leave to remain in the UK if they die of Covid-19, the government announced an extension of the scheme on May 20.

The scheme had been introduced in April to help support families affected by the pandemic.

Home secretary Priti Patel said the extension would be “effective immediately and retrospectively”.

Face coverings

Face masks became compulsory in shops and supermarkets in July, marking a U-turn on previous policy.

The move followed a weekend of confusion over whether ministers intended to make face coverings compulsory after Boris Johnson said they were looking at “stricter” rules.

In the early days of the pandemic, ministers and the government’s scientific advisers repeatedly played down the value of face coverings, saying the evidence on the benefits was thin.

There were also thought to be concerns stocks could be diverted from the NHS at a time of intense pressure on the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) if the public were encouraged to wear them.

Remote voting

MPs as they are seen queuing in a courtyard on the parliamentary estate to vote.
MPs as they are seen queuing in a courtyard on the parliamentary estate to vote.
JUSTIN TALLIS via Getty Images

The government was forced to row back on plans MPs to make them vote in person in the House of Commons in the early days of the pandemic.

Labour criticised the “shambolic” long queues MPs had to form to vote which were dubbed the “coronavirus conga”.

A hybrid system enabling parliamentarians to either attend the Commons in person or contribute to proceedings from afar via Zoom was put in place from the end of April before being halted in early June.

Coronavirus testing target

While not technically a U-turn, the monumental failure on testing – which was touted as the best way out of the pandemic – gets an honourable mention.

On April 2, Hancock set a goal of 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of the month.

At the government’s daily briefing on May 1, Hancock said testing figures had hit 122,347 on April 30.

However, the figures included the number of home tests (27,497) that had been sent out as well as the number of tests sent out to satellite sites (12,872).

It suggested that the number of tests actually processed was closer to around 81,978 – short of the government’s target.


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