News that the Chinese government had locked down an entire city on January 23 last year was met around the world with shock, disbelief and unease.
Seventeen people were dead and 571 were infected, prompting the communist government to cut the city of Wuhan off entirely in a move the World Health Organisation described as “unprecedented in public health history”.
What had been unprecedented soon became the precedent. Just 60 days later Boris Johnson sat in front of the nation and told the UK to stay at home – where, aside from some brief moments of freedom, we have largely remained.
In hindsight, it’s difficult to remember – but months of lockdown, the demise of socialising and the temporary end of foreign holidays didn’t initially seem to be a given even as the virus crept ever closer to UK shores.
Those intervening days were marked only by fear and uncertainty that manifested in a number of ways.
On February 1, Independent columnist James Moore felt compelled to write a piece on the worrying rise of racist attacks, particularly towards those from British Chinese communities.
“A piece saying ‘let’s calm down and see how this thing goes’ was warranted given what people were saying and doing,” he tells HuffPost UK.
“I defend what I wrote because while this obviously has turned into the big one, what inspired me to write that was the stuff I was seeing on social media and it was quite nasty.”
He added: “The world has fundamentally changed – it’s been quite astonishing. We haven’t seen anything like this since 1919.
“Anyone writing at the time – the world was a completely different place just a short year ago, completely different.”
Moore was very wrong about one thing – the pandemic was a bit like Contagion, because that’s what Matt Hancock based the UK’s vaccine programme on.
Speaking to ITV’s Good Morning Britain, he said: “I think the safest thing to say is Contagion wasn’t my only source of advice on this issue but I did watch the film – it is actually based on the advice of very serious epidemiologists.”
Probably best to forget that in Contagion, nearly everyone died.
‘How bad is coronavirus?’
This was the question asked on February 11 by a certain news journalist on a certain news website. With hindsight, the answer was clearly “extremely bad”.
Back then, however, we didn’t know that – and the responsible thing seemed to be to put the virus in context by comparing it with things like Ebola, Sars and seasonal flu.
One line from the article reads: “Four more patients in England tested positive for coronavirus on Monday, bringing the total number of cases in the UK to eight, and two GP surgery branches in Brighton have been shut following an outbreak in the city.”
Just weeks later, huge emergency Nightingale hospitals were being built to deal with the expected surge in patient numbers, and the collapse of the entire NHS was a real possibility.
But at the time, the global Covid death toll was less than a tenth of the number who had died in the Ebola outbreak, and we felt it was important that people understood it in context. The figures today, tragically, are extremely different.
‘It’s a strange relic of the past’
Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgen isn’t talking about the under-fire royal family or Nigel Farage’s latest venture. She’s referring to an article she wrote on February 14 of last year.
“The piece absolutely looks like something that was written in an entirely different universe,” the professor at Cardiff University’s school of journalism, media and culture tells HuffPost UK.
In it, Professor Wahl-Jorgen laments the use in the media of phrases such as “killer virus”, “killer flu” and “deadly disease” to describe what was then a mysterious outbreak that had reached the UK but was yet to claim its first British victim.
It concludes: “The prominence of fear as a theme in reports of the coronavirus suggests that much of the coverage of the outbreak is more a reflection of public fear than informative of what is actually happening in terms of the spread of the virus.”
Coronavirus made its front page debut in the UK on January 20 in the Financial Times, with a small piece on rising fears over the “Chinese virus”.
“The number of cases has reached more than 200, with three deaths, since it was first suspected at the start of the year,” the piece read.
Eleven days later, the first cases were confirmed in the UK.
Nearly a month later was the first reported death of a Brit, a man aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan on February 28.
Five days later, the first of over 125,000 deaths and counting on British soil – though it has since been established that UK citizens had been dying of the virus, initially unreported, since at least January 30.
“I’ve spent a lot of time talking about that piece and how I changed my mind as time went on,” says Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgen. “It’s interesting to look back on how different everything appeared at the time.
“It came from a perspective of being concerned about how media organisations are often irresponsible when they’re speculating about what might happen in the future.
“They tend to project these kinds of worst-case scenarios often in a bid to take a more sensational angle or simply to get more clicks on stories.”
Unlike Sars and Mers, the hyperbolic reporting around Covid-19 turned out to be relatively accurate – but no one could have known that at the time.
“I won’t say that I regret writing it because, on the basis of what we knew at that point, all the things I argued in that piece were certainly valid,” Prof Wahl-Jorgen says.
“However, things changed so rapidly and the pandemic became this all-encompassing crisis defining everything we do in such a way that those kinds of concerns, they transformed into something else.”
With this transformation came a curious change in language – the very thing Prof Wahl-Jorgen was worried about largely disappeared as phrases like “killer virus” vanished from front pages, even though that’s what it actually is.
“My hunch is that as we have more specific information we can be more precise about it,” she says.
“And the reality is extremely scary, but it’s not sensationalistic to point out that 100,000 people have died in the UK. That’s just a fact.”
The eerily accurate prediction
“Coronavirus looks like it won’t be contained.
“It’s not horror movie, and it’s not Spanish Flu, but it is serious.”
In hindsight, these words were the kind of calm and measured analysis we Brits should have expected from the government in February of last year as the increasingly serious coronavirus pandemic crept towards and then landed on our shores.
Instead, a week after they were uttered, Boris Johnson stood in front of the nation and told us all that he “shook hands with everybody” while visiting a hospital treating patients infected with Covid-19.
So who did say it? That would be journalist James Ball in a tweet on February 25, not that he got any thanks for it, describing the feedback he received as “overwhelmingly negative”.
“I think it was a mix of people not wanting it to be true and a suspicion of journalists being doom mongers or cheering on crises,” Ball tells HuffPost UK.
“Which I don’t think we do but I can see why people think we do.”
Johnson’s now infamous remark was made just two days before the first announced death on British soil, and three weeks before he announced a national lockdown.
“The government seemed behind on it,” says Ball. “That completely mad ‘I shook hands with everyone’ – I assume he meant to mean it in an ‘I was meeting the patients, not hiding in the sidelines’ kind of way.
“But it just looks like he’s going around joking about being a super-spreader. It just looks so weird.”
Over in the US, Steven Salzberg, professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, had a much better handle on things and wrote a piece listing the reasons why we should and shouldn’t panic.
Despite being only February, Prof Salzberg was clear that although “we don’t know exactly how bad it will get”, vaccines, avoiding travel, self-isolation were the keys to avoiding the worst-case scenario.
Unfortunately for us all, Prof Salzberg wasn’t in charge of our response.
“The US government was extremely slow because Trump was in denial,” he tells HuffPost UK.
“We unfortunately had a president who was completely in denial, completely ignorant of the science, and was being parroted by a lot of advisers, some of them who should have known better.
“New Zealand was terrific, Japan and South Korea were loads better. The UK was kind of a mixed bag.
“It seemed at first that Boris Johnson only took it seriously when he got sick so that seemed to really turn things around in the UK.”
‘Shut for six weeks?’
By the middle of March, the realisation coronavirus was going to significantly change our everyday lives was beginning to dawn on people.
Johnson was finally taking things seriously and during a press conference on March 12, described the outbreak as “the worst public health crisis for a generation”.
He added: “It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
Yet even with the dire warnings from the PM, the ramifications were still largely beyond comprehension. Journalist Jane Merrick, who was at that press briefing, pondered what life would be like if we had to “self-isolate/shut schools for six weeks”.
And then it happened – lockdown. The scenario that just 60 days earlier had seemed almost beyond belief when the government of China implemented it was imposed on us all.
Despite his insight, Prof Salzberg – like the rest of us – had no inkling we would still be in lockdown one year on.
“I didn’t think it would last this long but I didn’t say that in the article because I didn’t have any data,” he says.
“I thought, even if it’s bad, it won’t last as long as it has done.
“But now we know.”
Of course, not everyone was quite so accurate in their predictions of what coronavirus would bring.
Former MEP Daniel Hannan’s optimistic take on impending events was to highlight how social distancing and the demise of handshaking could add a dash of Downton Abbey to our lives.
Alas, Hannan did not respond to HuffPost UK’s request for comment, so we don’t know precisely how disappointed he is that these archaic forms of greeting haven’t quite caught on again.