Six times the UK Government changed its mind on coronavirus rules

So how do you tell fake news from ‘official’ government advice? As Facebook launches initiative to crackdown on covid ‘misinformation’, all the times UK health chiefs sowed confusion with U-turns over ibuprofen, the two-metre rule and face masks

  • Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said ‘clarity is in short supply’ in the UK
  • Officials have flipped stances on essential travel and international quarantine
  • One Leicester MP said messaging on social distancing is ‘at best confusing’ 

Facebook has today launched a campaign to weed out misinformation about the coronavirus — but even official messages have caused ‘considerable confusion’.

The British Government has rowed back on issues and changed its stance constantly throughout the Covid-19 crisis, always insisting it is ‘following science’.

Complicated messages and changes of heart have been rife in advice for the public, and politicians have accused the Government of sowing confusion.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said in Parliament last month: ‘What the country needs is clarity and reassurance, and at the moment both are in short supply.’

He said Prime Minister Boris Johnson had contributed to ‘considerable confusion’ about coronavirus rules and relied heavily on appeals to people’s common sense.

And Claudia Webbe, an MP in Leicester, a city now being forced back into lockdown as the rest of the country enjoys loosening rules, said last weekend: ‘The Government’s message about social distancing is at best confusing and at worst unclear.’

Other issues on which messaging has been confusing include the use of ibuprofen to treat coronavirus symptoms, the use of face masks, what the symptoms of coronavirus actually are, how ‘essential travel’ was defined during lockdown, the two-metre social distancing rule, and the usefulness of quarantining travellers.      

Here are some of the times official messaging got muddled: 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused by Labour's Sir Keir Starmer of contributing to 'considerable confusion' around coronavirus rules

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused by Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer of contributing to ‘considerable confusion’ around coronavirus rules

The symptoms of coronavirus

Officials refused to list a loss of taste and smell as a symptom: March

Officials finally list a loss of taste and smell as a symptom: May 18  

For months the Government insisted that the symptoms of Covid-19 were a new cough or a fever (high temperature), and that people with other signs of illness were not eligible to get tested for the virus.

Scientists and doctors clamoured for more consideration to be given for which symptoms were included – a sticking point was a lost sense of taste or smell.

Ear, nose and throat doctors said the numbers of patients reporting this around the world was skyrocketing at the same time as the coronavirus pandemic took off, and they couldn’t find a better explanation for it.

ENT UK urged the Government to list it as a symptom in March, when cases were first appearing in Britain. 

Officials resisted, while the US began recognising it in mid-April.

But on May 18, the Government decided it was a strong enough indicator of Covid-19 and listed it as an official symptom, meaning people could get tested if their sense of smell or taste changed or disappeared. 

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said at the time: ‘It has been important to continue to look at that [symptom] and be sure that we consider it and introduce it at the right time… this has been quite a difficult piece of science.’ 

There are concerns the UK is still behind the curve with its three official symptoms – the US now has 11, including diarrhoea, aches, fatigue and sore throat.

The NHS lists three coronavirus symptoms, while other countries have considerably more, with 11 officially listed in the US

The NHS lists three coronavirus symptoms, while other countries have considerably more, with 11 officially listed in the US

Treating Covid-19 symptoms with ibuprofen

NHS removes advice that advised using ibuprofen to treat Covid-19: Mid-March

UK concludes review of evidence and rules that ibuprofen is safe: April 

In mid-March the NHS removed advice that suggested people use ibuprofen to treat the symptoms of Covid-19 from its website.

FACEBOOK LAUNCHES CAMPAIGN TO FIGHT MISINFORMATION ABOUT COVID-19 

Facebook has today launched a campaign to tackle fake news and misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

Working with UK-based Full Fact, it will be advertising the campaign across the world and encouraging users to report fake news.

Conspiracy theories will be targeted on Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp – all owned by the Silicon Valley company – as well as articles that are untrue, Press Gazette reports.

The campaign page www.stampoutfalsenews.com urges Facebook users to ‘stop, think and check’ what they read online.

Will Moy, the chief executive of Full Fact – a British fact-checking website – told Press Gazette: ‘It’s vital that everyone receives clear, factual information about coronavirus. Bad information ruins lives…

‘People should ask themselves three simple questions about anything they read online. Where’s it from? What’s missing? And how does it make you feel? Emotive content can be more likely to persuade you into believing false news. During this health crisis lives are at stake.’  

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The move came after a French government minister said the anti-inflammatory painkiller could ‘aggravate’ symptoms by weakening the immune response.

At the time Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, said avoiding ibuprofen would be ‘the sensible thing to do’ if someone thought they had Covid-19, in the face of concerns about the common drug.

Parents came forward and said their children, who they thought had coronavirus but couldn’t get tests for, had become seriously ill after taking the medication.

Dan Collins, whose step-daughter Amelia reacted to the drug, told the Manchester Evening News: ‘Within an hour of giving it to her, she dropped dramatically.

‘She was panting while trying to breathe, her heart rate was very rapid, she couldn’t keep her eyes open, couldn’t lift her head up, her body was shaking, she started being sick on herself and her temperature had risen to 39.4.’

The World Health Organization said it was looking into the matter and advised patients to stick to using paracetamol.

A month later in April, however, the UK Government had concluded its review of the evidence and decided it was safe to keep taking ibuprofen with Covid-19.

The Commission on Human Medicines, which advises ministers on the safety of medicines, said there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to establish a link between ibuprofen use and the likelihood of getting coronavirus or of having worse symptoms of the disease. 

The CHM said: ‘Patients can take paracetamol or ibuprofen when self-medicating for symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever and headache, and should follow NHS advice if they have any questions or if symptoms get worse.’

Studies have since claimed there may still be an increase in risk, but the Government’s and NHS’s advice has reverted back to recommending both paracetamol and ibuprofen.     

In March the NHS removed advice for people to take ibuprofen to ease the symptoms of Covid-19 amid concerns it could 'aggravate' the disease. It has since been deemed safe and the guidance reinstated (stock image)

In March the NHS removed advice for people to take ibuprofen to ease the symptoms of Covid-19 amid concerns it could ‘aggravate’ the disease. It has since been deemed safe and the guidance reinstated (stock image)

The Commission on Human Medicines, which advises ministers on the safety of medicines, said there was 'insufficient evidence' to establish a link between ibuprofen use and the likelihood of getting coronavirus or of having worse symptoms of the disease (Pictured: Anm explainer on the NHS website)

The Commission on Human Medicines, which advises ministers on the safety of medicines, said there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to establish a link between ibuprofen use and the likelihood of getting coronavirus or of having worse symptoms of the disease (Pictured: Anm explainer on the NHS website)

‘Essential travel’ and the Dominic Cummings saga

Britain told only to travel for ‘essential’ reasons in lockdown: March 23

Boris Johnson reveals it was fine for his chief aide Dominic Cummings to seek childcare that he didn’t need at the start of lockdown: May 25 

When Britain was in full lockdown in March people were told by the Government that they should not leave the house except for ‘essential travel’, to stop the virus spreading.

Essential travel was publicly defined as to go food or medicine shopping, going to work if you had to, or driving to medical appointments. 

People were also permitted to deliver shopping to vulnerable relatives, friends or neighbours, and to exercise outdoors once a day.

But there was national uproar when it emerged that Boris Johnson’s top adviser himself, Dominic Cummings, had driven from London to Durham during lockdown on March 27.

The farce that followed saw Mr Cummings hold a televised press conference on May 25 in which he said he had gone to stay with his family because he thought he would need them to look after his son if he and his wife became seriously ill with Covid-19.

The public, kept away from their own families for months and faced with difficult decisions about how to care for their children, were mortified.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood by his aide and said he had made a reasonable decision driving more than 260 miles for childcare he turned out never to need.

He said: ‘Looking at the very severe childcare difficulties that presented themselves to Dominic Cummings and his family, I think that what they did was totally understandable.

‘There’s actually guidance… about what you need to do about the pressures that families face when they have childcare needs,’ the BBC reported.

Leader of the Scottish National Party in Westminster, Ian Blackford, said Cummings was ‘undermining public confidence in the health message’.

Mr Cummings came under intense pressure to quit his job and Durham Police investigated the incident, but nothing came of the matter. 

Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister's top aide, was pressured into holding a press conference in the garden of Downing Street to explain his actions when he broke lockdown rules

Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s top aide, was pressured into holding a press conference in the garden of Downing Street to explain his actions when he broke lockdown rules

London-to-Durham: The 260-mile journey that Cummings made to reach the home of his parents in Durham

London-to-Durham: The 260-mile journey that Cummings made to reach the home of his parents in Durham

Face masks: to wear or not to wear?

Face masks are pointless: March

Face masks work: April

Whether or not to wear a face mask, or ‘covering’, has been the subject of fierce debate throughout the UK’s coronavirus crisis.

They are common in East Asian countries already, and much of the Western world has adopted wearing them in order to curb the spread of Covid-19.

But Britain was adamant at the start of the crisis in March that it would not tell the public to wear face coverings because there was not good scientific proof that they work.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told LBC in April: ‘It is absolutely clear that if you’re working in a hospital or in a care home, then there’s a need for a mask, so we’ve got to make sure that’s the top priority, especially when the evidence of the use of masks by the general public is extremely weak.’

He added: ‘You’ve got to follow the evidence in terms of how effective mask wearing is.’

Rules, however, became gradually stricter. From June 5, the Government said it was mandatory for anyone in a hospital – patient or staff – to wear a mask or covering.

The Government for months refused to advise people to wear face masks but has since made it mandatory for them to be worn on public transport, and recommends them in busy places where social distancing is difficult (Pictured: A couple in Leicester wearing masks)

The Government for months refused to advise people to wear face masks but has since made it mandatory for them to be worn on public transport, and recommends them in busy places where social distancing is difficult (Pictured: A couple in Leicester wearing masks)

Studies suggest that wearing a face covering is not likely to protect people from inhaling the coronavirus, but could stop them spreading the disease on their breath, by catching droplets carrying the virus as they leave the person’s mouth.

On Monday, May 11, officials changed tack and advised members of the public to wear a mask if they were using public transport or in shops or other indoor spaces where they couldn’t remain 2m (6’7″) away from others.

The Government’s Covid-19 ‘recovery strategy’ said ‘people should aim to wear a face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible’.

It added that they ‘can help reduce the risk of transmission in some circumstances’.

A month later this rule toughened up again – from June 15, it has been mandatory for people to wear face masks on public transport, with the risk of a fine if they don’t.

The British Medical Association has called for masks to be required in all public settings, saying the UK’s approach is ‘out of step’ with other nations.

They may become more commonplace as part of Boris Johnson’s new ‘one metre plus’ social distancing rule, which begins this Saturday. 

Two metre social distancing to become ‘one metre plus’ 

Two metre social distancing is needed: March

One metre social distancing is fine: From July 4 

Social distancing has become a buzzword of 2020 and it’s here to stay, according to the Government’s top scientists. 

But the distance people must keep between one another is shrinking. A fixed 2metre rule (six feet, seven inches) has been in place since March in Britain.

Scientists repeated the fact that being two metres away from someone significantly reduces the risk of any virus-infected droplets jumping from them to you. 

At the beginning of June, Professor Catherine Noakes, an expert on airborne infection at University of Leeds, told The Times: ‘There are too many cases in the community for us to consider going below two metres.

‘There is transmission happening already, when we’ve been applying the [two-metre] distancing. If we reduce it, essentially, you double the risk.

‘Where you have a poorly-ventilated room and someone is four metres away – if there’s a high viral shedder in that room, that could cause an infection.’

But holes were picked in the rule when it emerged that other countries had 1.5m or even 1m social distancing rules, and the World Health Organization itself recommends ‘at least one metre (three feet)’.

Two-metre markers have been placed on pavements, supermarket floors and public transport around the country to help people stay the safe distance apart.

But this Saturday the rule will change to ‘one metre plus’ in a bid to help places like shops, pubs, and cafes and restaurants do business.

The shopping experience has been transformed by rules which stipulate people must stay 2m apart at all times where possible. Long, spaced-out queues and one-in, one-out policies have become commonplace

The shopping experience has been transformed by rules which stipulate people must stay 2m apart at all times where possible. Long, spaced-out queues and one-in, one-out policies have become commonplace 

The 2m rule has been reduced to 'one metre plus' from this Saturday in a rule which officials hope will help hospitality businesses like pubs to reopen. Pictured: Employees outside a pub lay social distancing lines on the pavement outside in preparation for July 4

The 2m rule has been reduced to ‘one metre plus’ from this Saturday in a rule which officials hope will help hospitality businesses like pubs to reopen. Pictured: Employees outside a pub lay social distancing lines on the pavement outside in preparation for July 4

The rule will mean ‘one metre plus mitigation’ and indicate that people should try to stay 2m apart, but that one metre – dubbed not safe enough thus far – would be enough if other measures were in place.

What mitigations will be acceptable where, and how they will be enforced, is still not clear. They could include masks, screens between people, and standing side-by-side instead of face-to-face, all of which could reduce the risk of virus transmission.

Quarantine for international arrivals

International arrivals won’t be quarantined: January

International arrivals will be quarantined: June 8 

When coronavirus cases started to appear in countries around in the world in January and February, international flights continued unabated.

Some countries stopped passengers from certain countries from entering – Italy banned flights from China and the US followed suit, later extending its ban to Europe – but Britain did not stop flights nor put any rules in place at airports or for arriving passengers.

For a short period the Foreign Office said people arriving from Italy or a number of countries in East Asia should self-isolate for two weeks, but this was voluntary.

Airlines eventually stopped flights on their own because passengers stopped booking tickets, but Britain’s borders remained open.

From June 8, however, the Government made it mandatory for any tourists travelling to, or back to, the UK to self-isolate for two weeks on arriving in Britain. If they refused, they would be denied entry. 

Quarantine for international arrivals in Britain has only been introduced now that there are tens of thousands of cases inside the country - it was snubbed at the start of the pandemic (Pictured: People at Heathrow Airport in London)

Quarantine for international arrivals in Britain has only been introduced now that there are tens of thousands of cases inside the country – it was snubbed at the start of the pandemic (Pictured: People at Heathrow Airport in London)

The Department of Health website says: ‘It can take up to 14 days for you to develop coronavirus symptoms after you catch the virus and in this time you can unknowingly pass it on to others, even if you don’t have symptoms.

‘Self-isolating will reduce the chance of a second wave of coronavirus in the UK and help prevent family, friends and the community from contracting coronavirus, as well as helping to protect the NHS.’ 

There is a long list of exceptions, however, including many people travelling for work, and officials now say they will set up ‘air bridges’ with some countries so people can go on holiday and not have to isolate when they return.

The countries on this list will reportedly be made of those with coronavirus outbreaks that are under control, and are so far set include Italy, Spain and Greece, but it is not clear how the safety of these journeys will be assessed.

Professor Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said this month that the rule should be ‘dropped as soon as possible’.

Professor Piot told the Andrew Marr Show: ‘We don’t need to look outside our own borders. The virus is here,’ adding that the rule was ‘completely useless’.

‘That only makes sense at the very beginning, before we have cases, when indeed they were imported,’ he said.

‘Today, that’s not going to contribute much and the damage it causes to the country – to the economy – is going to be enormous.

‘So let’s hope that that rule is dropped as soon as possible and let’s concentrate on what works.’

WHEN WAS UK CORONAVIRUS ADVICE CHANGED OR UNCLEAR? 

The symptoms of coronavirus

For months the Government insisted that the symptoms of Covid-19 were a new cough or a fever (high temperature), and that people with other signs of illness were not eligible to get tested for the virus.

Scientists and doctors clamoured for more consideration to be given for which symptoms were included – a sticking point was a lost sense of taste or smell.

Ear, nose and throat doctors said the numbers of patients reporting this around the world was skyrocketing at the same time as the coronavirus pandemic took off, and they couldn’t find a better explanation for it.

ENT UK urged the Government to list it as a symptom in March, when cases were first appearing in Britain. 

Officials resisted, while the US began recognising it in mid-April.

But on May 18, the Government decided it was a strong enough indicator of Covid-19 and listed it as an official symptom, meaning people could get tested if their sense of smell or taste changed or disappeared. 

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said at the time: ‘It has been important to continue to look at that [symptom] and be sure that we consider it and introduce it at the right time… this has been quite a difficult piece of science.’ 

There are concerns the UK is still behind the curve with its three official symptoms – the US now has 11, including diarrhoea, aches, fatigue and sore throat.

‘Essential travel’ and the Dominic Cummings saga

When Britain was in full lockdown people were told by the Government that they should not leave the house except for ‘essential travel’, to stop the virus spreading.

Essential travel was publicly defined as to go food or medicine shopping, going to work if you had to, or driving to medical appointments. 

People were also permitted to deliver shopping to vulnerable relatives, friends or neighbours, and to exercise outdoors once a day.

But there was national uproar when it emerged that Boris Johnson’s top adviser himself, Dominic Cummings, had driven from London to Durham during lockdown.

The farce that followed saw Mr Cummings hold a televised press conference in which he said he had gone to stay with his family because he thought he would need them to look after his son if he and his wife became seriously ill with Covid-19.

The public, kept away from their own families for months and faced with difficult decisions about how to care for their children, were mortified.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood by his aide and said he had made a reasonable decision driving more than 260 miles for childcare he turned out never to need.

Leader of the Scottish National Party in Westminster, Ian Blackford, said Cummings was ‘undermining public confidence in the health message’.

Mr Cummings came under intense pressure to quit his job and Durham Police investigated the incident, but nothing came of the matter. 

Face masks: to wear or not to wear?

Whether or not to wear a face mask, or ‘covering’, has been the subject of fierce debate throughout the UK’s coronavirus crisis.

They are common in East Asian countries already, and much of the Western world has adopted wearing them in order to curb the spread of Covid-19.

But Britain was adamant at the start of the crisis that it would not tell the public to wear face coverings because there was not good scientific proof that they work.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told LBC in April: ‘It is absolutely clear that if you’re working in a hospital or in a care home, then there’s a need for a mask, so we’ve got to make sure that’s the top priority, especially when the evidence of the use of masks by the general public is extremely weak.’

He added: ‘You’ve got to follow the evidence in terms of how effective mask wearing is.’

Rules, however, became gradually stricter. From June 5, the Government said it was mandatory for anyone in a hospital – patient or staff – to wear a mask or covering.

Studies suggest that wearing a face covering is not likely to protect people from inhaling the coronavirus, but could stop them spreading the disease on their breath, by catching droplets carrying the virus as they leave the person’s mouth.

On Monday, May 11, officials changed tack and advised members of the public to wear a mask if they were using public transport or in shops or other indoor spaces where they couldn’t remain 2m (6’7″) away from others.

The Government’s Covid-19 ‘recovery strategy’ said ‘people should aim to wear a face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible’.

It added that they ‘can help reduce the risk of transmission in some circumstances’.

A month later this rule toughened up again – from June 15, it has been mandatory for people to wear face masks on public transport, with the risk of a fine if they don’t.

The British Medical Association has called for masks to be required in all public settings, saying the UK’s approach is ‘out of step’ with other nations.

They may become more commonplace as part of Boris Johnson’s new ‘one metre plus’ social distancing rule, which begins this Saturday. 

Two metre social distancing to become ‘one metre plus’ 

Social distancing has become a buzzword of 2020 and, the Government’s top scientists say, it’s here to stay. 

But the distance people must keep between one another is shrinking. A fixed 2metre rule (six feet, seven inches) has been in place since March in Britain.

Scientists repeated the fact that being two metres away from someone significantly reduces the risk of any virus-infected droplets jumping from them to you. 

At the beginning of June, Professor Catherine Noakes, an expert on airborne infection at University of Leeds, told The Times: ‘There are too many cases in the community for us to consider going below two metres.

‘There is transmission happening already, when we’ve been applying the [two-metre] distancing. If we reduce it, essentially, you double the risk.

‘Where you have a poorly-ventilated room and someone is four metres away – if there’s a high viral shedder in that room, that could cause an infection.’

But holes were picked in the rule when it emerged that other countries had 1.5m or even 1m social distancing rules, and the World Health Organization itself recommends ‘at least one metre (three feet)’.

Two-metre markers have been placed on pavements, supermarket floors and public transport around the country to help people stay the safe distance apart.

But this Saturday the rule will change to ‘one metre plus’ in a bid to help places like shops, pubs, and cafes and restaurants do business.

The rule will mean ‘one metre plus mitigation’ and indicate that people should try to stay 2m apart, but that one metre – dubbed not safe enough thus far – would be enough if other measures were in place.

What mitigations will be acceptable where, and how they will be enforced, is still not clear. They could include masks, screens between people, and standing side-by-side instead of face-to-face, all of which could reduce the risk of virus transmission.

Quarantine for international visitors 

When coronavirus cases started to appear in countries around in the world in January and February, international flights continued unabated.

Some countries stopped passengers from certain countries from entering – Italy banned flights from China and the US followed suit, later extending its ban to Europe – but Britain did not stop flights nor put any rules in place at airports or for arriving passengers.

For a short period the Foreign Office said people arriving from Italy or a number of countries in East Asia should self-isolate for two weeks, but this was voluntary.

Airlines eventually stopped flights on their own because passengers stopped booking tickets, but Britain’s borders remained open.

From June 8, however, the Government made it mandatory for any tourists travelling to, or back to, the UK to self-isolate for two weeks on arriving in Britain. If they refused, they would be denied entry. 

The Department of Health website says: ‘It can take up to 14 days for you to develop coronavirus symptoms after you catch the virus and in this time you can unknowingly pass it on to others, even if you don’t have symptoms.

‘Self-isolating will reduce the chance of a second wave of coronavirus in the UK and help prevent family, friends and the community from contracting coronavirus, as well as helping to protect the NHS.’ 

There is a long list of exceptions, however, including many people travelling for work, and officials now say they will set up ‘air bridges’ with some countries so people can go on holiday and not have to isolate when they return.

The countries on this list will reportedly be made of those with coronavirus outbreaks that are under control, and are so far set include Italy, Spain and Greece, but it is not clear how the safety of these journeys will be assessed.

Professor Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said this month that the rule should be ‘dropped as soon as possible’.

Professor Piot told the Andrew Marr Show: ‘We don’t need to look outside our own borders. The virus is here,’ adding that the rule was ‘completely useless’.

‘That only makes sense at the very beginning, before we have cases, when indeed they were imported,’ he said.

‘Today, that’s not going to contribute much and the damage it causes to the country – to the economy – is going to be enormous.

‘So let’s hope that that rule is dropped as soon as possible and let’s concentrate on what works.’

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