The picture from a year ago today that tells the story of the UK’s disastrous COVID response

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·6 min read
Some 60,000 people attended day one of Cheltenham Festival on 10 March: 13 days before the first coronavirus lockdown was imposed. (Michael Steele/Getty Images)
(Michael Steele/Getty Images)

If it was an image that made you feel uneasy then, it will fill you with disbelief now.

It is 10 March, 2020, and jockey Nico de Boinville is surrounded by a throng of people after winning on day one of Cheltenham Festival.

They were among the 60,000 allowed to pack into Cheltenham Racecourse exactly one year ago today.

The festival, which ran until 13 March, was among the last mass gatherings to take place in the UK before the nation was overwhelmed by the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cheltenham is now held by many as a symbol of Boris Johnson’s slow response to the outbreak.

CHELTENHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 10: Shishkin ridden by Nico de Boinville beats Abacadabras ridden by Davy Russell run to win the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1 at Cheltenham Racecourse on March 10, 2020 in Cheltenham, England. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
The huge crowd on day one of Cheltenham Festival on 10 March last year. (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

On 9 March, the day before the picture was taken, a Downing Street spokesperson accepted that coronavirus was "going to spread in a significant way" following an emergency Cobra meeting chaired by the prime minister.

It is now clear how much of an understatement this was.

Scientists from Imperial College London and Oxford University estimate that, as organisers pressed ahead with Cheltenham, 100,000 people were being infected in the UK each day, according to reports in The Times.

Speaking the month after the event was allowed to go ahead, Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007, said allowing an event like Cheltenham was “the best possible way to accelerate the spread of the virus”.

Day one of the festival took place...

Whether Cheltenham would go ahead or not was a major talking point in the days leading up to the festival. However, this quote from health secretary Matt Hancock on 5 March last year suggests stopping large gatherings was not on ministers' minds.

“The science on large events is that now there is no material clinical benefit, epidemiological benefit, to cancelling events, so long as people undertake the public health measures that I’m sure you all have heard of: wash your hands and if you have a cough or sneeze, catch it.”

Sporting events continued on the weekend of 7 and 8 March – Johnson himself attended the England rugby team's Six Nations match against Wales at Twickenham – and Cheltenham organisers declared, on 9 March, that it was “full steam ahead” for the start of the festival the following day.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) with his partner Carrie Symonds attend the Six Nations international rugby union match between England and Wales at the Twickenham, west London, on March 7, 2020. (Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP) (Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson, centre, at the Six Nations match on 7 March last year. (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

It had followed a meeting between sports governing bodies, broadcasters and government officials. They came to the conclusion that there was no reason to cancel sporting events “as things stand”.

On 10 March, there had been 349 confirmed cases in the UK. However, because testing capacity was so limited at the time, the actual number is known to have been far higher. Modelling by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimates that fewer than 1% of positive cases were caught by the testing scheme at this time.

So, what impact did Cheltenham, which had an aggregate attendance of more than 200,000 over the four days, actually have on the pandemic?

One study by Edge Health, a health data analytics company, focused on the festival, as well as Liverpool's Champions League football match against Atletico Madrid on 11 March. It suggested both events "led to an additional 37 and 41 deaths" respectively at local hospitals between 25 and 35 days later.

The report didn't include figures for deaths in other hospitals involving people who had travelled to attend then returned to their home towns.

It also said 12,900 people are likely to have been infected, with many needing hospital treatment and also suffering the effects of "long COVID".

While allowing Cheltenham Festival to go ahead was only one of many factors behind the explosion of COVID cases, it does tell the story of a government being slow to respond to the crisis.

The 'herd immunity' strategy

Even on 13 March, the final day of the festival, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientific adviser, was saying shutting down big events would not have a "big effect" on transmission rates.

Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19). Picture date: Friday January 22, 2021. (Photo by Leon Neal/PA Images via Getty Images)
Sir Patrick Vallance said on 13 March last year that shutting down big events would not have a 'big effect' on transmission rates. (Leon Neal/PA Images via Getty Images)

At that time, Vallance was talking about "herd immunity", the idea that enough people could become resistant to a disease through exposure to it.

Dr David Halpern, who leads the government's Behavioural Insights Team, revealed on 11 March that the government was entertaining this as a strategy.

He told the BBC: "There's going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows as it will do, where you want to cocoon, to protect those at-risk groups so they don't catch the disease.

"By the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population."

Watch: What is long COVID?

Modelling by Imperial College London suggested that allowing the virus to rip through the population would have led to as many as 500,000 deaths.

Vallance has always insisted pursuing herd immunity was never official government policy.

It was only later, on 14 March, that the Johnson administration rapidly started to change tack, with reports emerging of plans to ban mass gatherings.

On 10 June, exactly three months after day one of the festival, the government's slow response was highlighted by Prof Neil Ferguson, the scientist whose modelling finally convinced Johnson to go into lockdown.

Read more:

Next COVID surge will cause significant number of deaths this year, warns Chris Whitty

The story behind one of the most significant pictures of 2020

Prof Ferguson told MPs that cases had been doubling every three to four days – and that the death toll could have been halved if the lockdown was introduced a week earlier on 16 March.

Now, a year after Cheltenham and following the horrors of the pandemic, the UK is moving towards a better place.

Cases, hospital admissions and deaths have plummeted thanks, in part, to Johnson's government overseeing one of the most successful vaccine rollouts in the world. A target date of 21 June has been set for England's lockdown to end.

But, when a public inquiry into the UK's response is eventually held, it will still be down to Johnson, in his words, to "take full responsibility for everything the government has done" during the pandemic.

Watch: How England is leaving lockdown