- Our COVID-19 policy tracker documents national government and health and social care system responses to COVID-19 in England, and how they change over time.
- The interactive summary timeline below shows the key policies and events. Hover over each dot for details.
- A summary of what's happened so far in each policy area can can be viewed in the drop down boxes further down the page.
- The full policy tracker with a more detailed timeline and greater detail on policy changes across five areas can be downloaded in spreadsheet format below.
- This updated version of the tracker has details from the 31 December 2019 up to 18 May 2020. New versions of the tracker will be uploaded weekly.
Governments across the world are seeking to limit the impact of COVID-19 on health and society. The pandemic has already had a fundamental effect on people’s lives.
Policy responses to COVID-19 are complex, context-specific, and rapidly evolving – with different countries pursuing varying approaches to managing the pandemic. Documenting these policies can help us understand and assess government responses to COVID-19 over time.
Our policy tracker provides a description and timeline of national policy and health system responses to COVID-19 in England. The full tracker includes data on what changes have been introduced, when, why, and by whom – as well as how these changes have been communicated by policymakers. We track policy changes in five areas – from health and care system changes to wider social and economic policy.
The interactive timeline below shows the key policies and events since 31 December 2019, and there's more detail on what our five policy areas cover and summaries of the key developments for each in the drop down boxes below.
You can also download the full COVID-19 policy tracker in Excel spreadsheet format. (Due to file size, we've now split this into a spreadsheet for each of the five areas.) These full trackers describe a much wider range of policy changes than the summary version, and include more data on what these changes are and how they have evolved.
Download the full tracker
What has happened so far (as of 18 May)?
The UK government initially described its policy response to COVID-19 in four parts: contain, delay, research, and mitigate. On 11 May, the government published a new ‘recovery strategy’, setting out the next phase of the government’s response. This included a new COVID-19 alert system and an illustration of how lockdown measures may be eased in the future.
Daily televised briefings have been used to update the public on the government’s approach, fronted by politicians and scientific and medical experts. In communicating their decisions, the Prime Minister and other government ministers have stressed that their policy choices have been guided by scientific evidence and advice. The government's assessment of the risk of COVID-19 to the UK was low until 30 January 2020.
In the contain phase, public messages from the government included advice on self-isolation for people returning from particular countries, and an information campaign on handwashing and hygiene. On 11 March 2020, the Chancellor announced an initial £12bn package of support for the NHS, wider public services, businesses, and others to help tackle COVID-19.
Moving from contain to delay
The government announced it was moving from the contain to the delay phase of its COVID-19 response on 12 March, with new social distancing measures announced for people with COVID-19 symptoms. The Prime Minister used a live briefing to ‘level with the British public’, saying that ‘many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time’. On the same day, the government’s risk assessment of COVID-19 moved from moderate to high.
On 16 March, the government announced stricter social distancing measures for all – asking the public to ‘stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel’. On the same day, a paper was published by Imperial College London researchers suggesting that there could be around 250,000 deaths in the UK if ‘mitigation’ policies to COVID-19 (focused on slowing but not necessarily stopping the spread of the disease) were pursued. Emergency legislation – The Coronavirus Act 2020 – was introduced as a bill on 19 March 2020 and became law on 25 March, providing a range of temporary powers for government during the COVID-19 outbreak and response. The legislation will be in place for two years (and reviewed every six months).
On 18 March, the Prime Minister announced that schools would close from 20 March, except for children of key workers and vulnerable groups. Bars, restaurants, shops, and some other premises were told to close on 20 March. And measures were announced to shield and support 1.5 million of the most vulnerable people for at least 12 weeks on 22 March. In a pre-recorded, televised address to the nation on 23 March, the Prime Minister announced stricter lockdown measures, instructing people to only leave their home for a small number of purposes, closing all non-essential shops, and stopping social gatherings.
The ‘recovery’ phase
At the end of April, the Prime Minister promised the public a ‘comprehensive plan’ for easing social distancing measures. On 10 May, the Prime Minister used a televised message to describe ‘the shape of a plan’ to beat the virus and reopen society. This was followed by the publication of a new government ‘COVID-19 recovery strategy’ the following day, which outlined three steps to lifting lockdown restrictions. In step one – starting from 13 May and in place until at least 1 June – anyone who cannot work from home is actively encouraged to go back to work, and people will be allowed to take ‘unlimited’ outdoor exercise. Taking further steps, when restrictions can be eased further, will depend on a range of factors – including a new COVID-19 ‘alert system’ for ranking the country’s threat from COVID-19. The government’s message of ‘stay home’ also changed to ‘stay alert’.
The Prime Minister used the foreword of the government’s new strategy to ask the country to ‘be patient with a continued disruption to our normal way of life’. He warned that ‘a mass vaccine or treatment may be more than a year away’ – and that ‘in a worst-case scenario, we may never find a vaccine’. He also recognised that measures to control COVID-19 have ‘taken a heavy toll on society – in particular to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged’.
Broader policies and politics
A wide-ranging set of policies have been introduced by the Chancellor to support the economy and households during COVID-19, costing hundreds of billions of pounds. Emergency funding has been provided for public services and some ‘front-line’ charities. These measures have been expanded and amended over time. The Chancellor has said that the government will do ‘whatever it takes’ to support the NHS, businesses, families, and individuals.
Some government messages on the COVID-19 response have changed over time. For example, the government has announced various targets and strategies on COVID-19 testing. After stopping community testing for COVID-19 on 12 March, the Prime Minister announced on 19 March that the government would be ‘ramping up’ daily testing to as many as 250,000. The government then set a target for carrying out 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. On 1 May, the Health Secretary announced that this target had been met – though the reported figure included tests that had been sent out to homes or satellite centres but not necessarily completed. The UK Statistics Authority wrote to the Health Secretary asking for more clarity on how the targets are defined, measured, and reported.
During the government’s live daily briefings, media questions have often focused on availability of testing and personal protective equipment (PPE), NHS capacity to treat COVID-19 patients, and – increasingly – the nature and timing of the government’s support for care homes dealing with the outbreak. On 2 April, the Health Secretary suggested that there will be ‘criticisms made’ of the approach taken to COVID-19 testing – ‘some of them justified’. On 30 April, the Prime Minister acknowledged ‘the logistical problems we have faced in getting the right protective gear to the right people at the right time’, as well as ‘the frustrations that we have experienced in expanding the numbers of tests’. A social care ‘action plan’ was published by government on 15 April – the same day that testing was expanded to social care settings – and details of extra support for infection control in care homes was published on 15 May. On the same day, the Health Secretary claimed that ‘from the start, we’ve worked incredibly hard to throw that protective ring around our care homes'.
Leaders and advisors
Several key individuals have been at the heart of the government response – including the Prime Minister, First Secretary of State, Health Secretary, Chief Medical Officer, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Chief Scientific Adviser, and others. Several government ministers have led daily briefings to make particular announcements. The Queen addressed the nation with a televised message on 5 April to thank NHS staff, care workers, the public, and others for their part in the COVID-19 response.
The Prime Minister spent a week in hospital with COVID-19 from 5 to 12 April. The First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, led the government’s response while he recovered. The Prime Minister returned to work in Downing Street on April 27. COBR meetings and the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) have been key mechanisms for government advice and decision-making during the COVID-19 outbreak. The membership of the SAGE group was made public by the government on 4 May.
The first phase of the government’s response to COVID-19 focused on containment. This included advice from Public Health England and the Foreign Office on international travel – including advising against all but essential travel to mainland China. A COVID-19 public information campaign was launched, initial surveillance programmes were set up, and diagnostic testing rolled out in stages. The Budget on 11 March 2020 provided £10m to increase the capacity and capability of testing and surveillance. The government also introduced legal powers to impose restrictions on individuals at risk of spreading the virus.
On 12 March, the government announced it was moving into the delay phase of its COVID-19 response and introduced the first social distancing measures. Anybody with COVID-19 symptoms was told to stay at home and self-isolate, regardless of their travel history or contact with confirmed cases. These measures were strengthened on 16 March: self-isolation was extended to people with symptoms and their households, the public were told to stop non-essential contact and all unnecessary travel, and the government withdrew support for mass gatherings. Schools, colleges, and nurseries closed for the vast majority of children from 20 March (though provisions were made for the children of key workers and vulnerable children).
These measures were strengthened on 20 March with the closure of all entertainment, hospitality, and indoor leisure premises. As part of a set of ‘shielding’ measures, up to 1.5 million people in England identified by the NHS as ‘higher risk’ were advised to stay at home at all times for at least 12 weeks, with support promised for those who would need it.
More stringent lockdown measures were introduced on 23 March. These instructed people to stay at home except for very limited purposes (including shopping for essentials, exercise, and medical needs). Non-essential shops, businesses and venues were closed, gatherings of two or more people in public were banned, and all social events stopped. Police were given the powers to enforce these new restrictions.
On 16 April, the government announced that these measures would remain in place for at least 3 weeks before being reviewed again. On 22 April, the government’s Chief Medical Officer said that social distancing measures are likely to be in place for ‘really quite a long period of time’ – possibly for the rest of the year. At the end of April, the Prime Minister promised a ‘comprehensive plan’ on suppressing the virus and restarting the economy.
The Prime Minister announced the ‘first careful steps’ to modify existing measures in an address to the nation on 10 May, with more detail in the government’s ‘COVID-19 recovery strategy’ published the following day. This outlined a three step roadmap to lifting restrictions. Step one (from 13 May in England) included: actively encouraging anyone who can’t work from home to go to work, encouraging people to take more ‘and even unlimited’ outdoor exercise, and advising the public to wear face coverings in enclosed spaces. Self-isolation will be introduced for those arriving by air ‘as soon as possible’. New guidance for employers and the public was published alongside the plan. Fines for not complying were increased.
The current measures will remain until at least 1 June. The plan also outlined the second (including the phased reopening of schools and non-essential retail) and third (opening some remaining businesses, including hospitality and leisure facilities) steps in easing restrictions – though the content and timing of these are conditional and subject to scientific advice.
Eligibility for testing has evolved over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak – as has the government’s capacity to carry out tests. After moving to the delay phase of the government’s strategy, testing focused on those meeting Public Health England’s inpatient definition. Since then, testing has been expanded to cover: front-line NHS staff (27 March), social care settings (15 April), additional front-line workers (17 April), all essential workers and members of their households who are showing COVID-19 symptoms (23 April), anyone in England with symptoms who is aged 65 and older or has to leave home to go to work, and asymptomatic NHS and social care staff and care home residents (28 April). Since 18 May, anybody in the UK with symptoms is now eligible to book a test. A new online booking system was launched alongside the 23 April expansion, along with additional testing methods (such as mobile testing units, and delivery of home testing kits).
A new government COVID-19 testing strategy was published on 4 April. It described five ‘pillars’: NHS swab testing for patients and NHS workers, new commercial swab testing capacity for key workers, antibody testing to detect if people have had the virus, surveillance testing to determine what proportion of the population have had the virus, and building a British diagnostics industry. A target was set across all five pillars for 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. On 1 May, the Health Secretary announced that this target had been met – though the reported figure included tests that had been sent out to homes or satellite centres but not necessarily completed. On 6 May, the Prime Minister said the government’s ambition was ‘to get up to 200,000 a day by the end of this month, and then to go even higher’. In March the Prime Minister committed to increasing daily testing to 250,000, though no timeline was set for when this will be done (and a government minister later described this commitment as ‘an ambition without a particular timetable’).
On 12 April, the Health Secretary announced a new NHS app for contact tracing, and on 23 April, he announced that the infrastructure was being put in place to roll out contact tracing on a large scale. The government’s ‘test, track, and trace’ programme – including the new NHS app – is first being piloted on the Isle of Wight (since 5 May), and is expected to be expanded to the whole country in the middle of May.
Other powers and guidance
New powers to implement some of these measures to limit COVID-19 spread, such as closing ports and schools, were introduced via the Coronavirus Act 2020 and other regulations. Travel restrictions were extended to advise against all non-essential worldwide travel in mid-March. The government’s public information campaign has been expanded, and guidance from government departments has continued to be issued and updated – including for local councils, care homes, and prisons. This includes changing guidance on personal protective equipment (PPE).
NHS and social care services in England have undergone fundamental changes in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes changes to how care is paid for and delivered, NHS capacity and staffing, access to services, and health system governance and decision making.
Expanding capacity and reorganising NHS services
The NHS has expanded capacity and reorganised services to manage COVID-19 patients. Initial guidance was produced in January and February on managing COVID-19 patients, and all NHS organisations were asked to establish a ‘COVID-19 incident management team’ on 2 March, with various emergency arrangements put in place to coordinate the response. On 17 March, NHS England and NHS Improvement wrote to all NHS leaders outlining a wide range of changes to prepare for the COVID-19 outbreak. This included measures to free up hospital capacity by postponing all non-urgent elective operations from 15 April (for at least 3 months), urgently discharging all patients who are medically fit to leave, and block-buying capacity in the independent health care sector – including hospitals and staff – to treat NHS patients (with an agreement completed on 23 March, for a minimum of 14 weeks). Seven additional ‘NHS Nightingale’ hospitals have been announced to increase NHS capacity – with the first new hospital opening at the ExCeL centre in London on 3 April (placed on standby in early May).
Primary care services have largely shifted to video and telephone triage, with face-to-face appointments only when necessary. The NHS 111 phone advice service has been expanded and a new online service has been introduced to provide advice to patients with COVID-19 symptoms. National NHS bodies have produced guidance for various parts of the health system during the COVID-19 response. And the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has produced rapid guidelines for managing COVID-19 patients. Essential services, such as cancer diagnosis and treatment, are continuing as far as possible. On 22 April, the Health Secretary suggested we had reached the ‘peak’ of the disease and that we can now start to ‘reopen’ the NHS – including for elective surgery.
On 27 April, the Health Secretary said that ‘the NHS is open’ and encouraged people to use health services when they need them. NHS England and NHS Improvement then set out plans for the ‘second’ phase of the NHS response to COVID-19 on 29 April, asking NHS organisations to ‘step up’ urgent non-COVID-19 services as soon as possible over the next 6 weeks, and to make local judgements about expanding ‘at least some’ non-urgent elective services. On 14 May, a national framework was published setting out plans for urgent and planned hospital services during COVID-19. Measures include requiring all elective patients and their household members to isolate for 14 days and not have any symptoms (after self-isolating) before being admitted.
Several policy changes have aimed to boost the health and social care workforce and support them to work flexibly. Retired staff have been given the opportunity to return to practice. Medical and nursing students towards the end of their training have been given the opportunity to register early. And the Home Office has extended the visas of some overseas NHS staff and social workers. The government also launched a call for volunteers to support the NHS on 24 March, with 750,000 signing up.
Testing and PPE
As testing capacity has increased, COVID-19 testing for NHS and social care staff and their families has been expanded. A cross-government plan to ensure that PPE is delivered to NHS and social care staff was published on 10 April. Guidance on PPE has been revised several times throughout the course of the COVID-19 outbreak. For example, on 17 April, PPE guidance was updated in light of PPE shortages, including a change of policy on full-length gowns in the case of previously recommended PPE no longer being available.
Social care changes and support
The Coronavirus Act 2020 amended existing legislation related to adult social care, allowing local authorities to prioritise services for those most in need – even if this means not meeting everyone’s needs. Of the £5bn emergency funding for public services announced at the 11 March Budget, the government later allocated £1.3bn funding for discharging patients from NHS hospitals, including the social care services they may need, and local government was provided £1.6bn funding to ease pressures on services. A national ‘action plan’ for social care was published on 15 April. This included expanding testing policies in care homes, greater support for those working in social care, a new care ‘brand’ for the sector, and plans to boost social care recruitment by 20,000 over the next 3 months. A further £1.6bn was promised for local authorities to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak on 18 April. On 15 May, the government published details of a care home support package, accompanied by a £600m infection control fund for adult social care. As part of this, care homes are asked to restrict permanent and agency staff to working in only one care home wherever possible.
Other system changes
Several changes to NHS structures and governance have been introduced to support the COVID-19 response. This includes suspending the routine quality inspection regime, replacing existing payment systems, centralising NHS commissioning, and suspending NHS competition rules. Professional regulators have written to health and care professionals recognising that staff may need to ‘depart from established procedures’ during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Coronavirus Act 2020 also introduced flexibilities to try to increase the supply of health and social care workers and ease pressures on staff. To support the NHS response, the government committed to providing the NHS with additional funding. The Chancellor said that the NHS would get ‘whatever it needs, whatever the costs’ to deal with the outbreak. The government has also ‘written off’ £13.4bn of historic NHS Trust debt.
Government has invested in domestic and international research related to COVID-19. It has called on industry to support the COVID-19 response, including to manufacture ventilators, collaborated with other research funders, and introduced some flexibilities related to research and development.
In early February, government announced a £20m fund to support rapid research into COVID-19 in the UK, managed by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). Funding is being allocated in two pots – the first focused on vaccines and therapeutic interventions, the second focused on diagnosis and understanding of COVID-19. Projects already funded include trials of new COVID-19 vaccines, repurposing existing treatments for COVID-19, developing antibodies that target COVID-19, testing approved drugs, and more.
By mid-March, NIHR had announced that it would prioritise nationally-funded COVID-19 activity, freeing up NIHR-funded staff to work in clinical settings. NIHR has also paused the set up of any new or ongoing studies at NHS or social care sites that are not nationally prioritised COVID-19 research projects. Other funding has also been made available – including for a new genome sequencing alliance to map COVID-19 spread, and a rolling fund to support rapid research projects into various aspects of the COVID-19. NIHR and UK Research and Innovation launched a funding call in April asking researchers to investigate the relationship between ethnicity and COVID-19 incidence and outcomes. Public Health England has also launched a rapid review to analyse evidence on how ethnicity, gender, obesity, and other factors can impact on people’s COVID-19 outcomes.
Government has called on UK industry to support the COVID-19 response – including to manufacture ventilators and boost testing capacity. On 28 April, the government stopped proceeding with new applications to provide ventilators, with the MHRA website stating that the UK has now ‘fulfilled the clinical need for ventilators’ through various efforts to increase supply. The Medicines and Health care products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has published a range of guidance for researchers and industry on regulatory flexibilities and product specifications during the COVID-19 outbreak.
A ‘vaccine taskforce’ was announced on 17 April, chaired by Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Officer, to accelerate and coordinate efforts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. On 17 May, the government announced additional funding to speed up construction of the UK vaccine manufacturing and innovation centre in Oxford – including to allow manufacturing to begin from 2020 (a year before the centre is planned to be completed). Government has also invested more than £200m in an international fund – the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) – to support vaccine development globally.
A wide-ranging set of policy measures have been introduced to support the economy and individuals as the government responds to COVID-19. In the Budget on 11 March, government announced an initial £12bn package of support. This included funding for local authorities to support the most vulnerable, tax relief and funding grants for some businesses, a government backed business loan scheme, and emergency support for public services.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 – emergency legislation introduced on 19 March – created a range of temporary powers for the state to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes powers to detain and isolate individuals, close schools, ports, and other premises, amend national insurance contributions, measures to help maintain food supplies, flexibilities for public services under pressure during the COVID-19 response, and more.
A mix of policies and investment has been introduced to support UK businesses and employees. Government has announced that they will help pay businesses wage bills during the COVID-19 response – as much as 80% of an individual’s wages up to £2,500 a month, currently up to the end of October 2020 (and backdated to 1 March). Changes to the scheme are due in August, allowing workers to return to work part-time and requiring employers to meet a percentage of the salary costs of their furloughed staff. A similar scheme was later announced for the self-employed (though not all are eligible) and will be available in June. Statutory sick pay can now be accessed sooner and workers’ annual leave entitlements can be carried over to subsequent years. The COVID-19 business loan scheme introduced in the Budget on 11 March has since been expanded and £330bn made available for businesses.
Tax and welfare changes have created additional support for households. Government has increased the level of universal and tax credits, and has given extra support for renters. Measures have also been introduced to provide greater protection for tenants from eviction.
Public services and charities involved in the COVID-19 response have been promised additional funding. Local authorities have been allocated £3.2bn for local pressures, schools will receive extra funding, and money has been made available to some ‘front-line’ charities – including support for domestic abuse victims, vulnerable children and families, and victims of modern slavery. To maintain essential travel, bus operators have received a short-term funding boost and government will cover financial risk for train operators.
Monetary policy interventions have also been used to support the economy. The Bank of England reduced its base rate to 0.1% on 19 March (after first reducing it to 0.25% on 11 March) and increased government and corporate bond holdings by £200bn. These measures are designed to reduce the cost of borrowing and increase investment.
What does the tracker cover?
The tracker focuses on national government and health and social care system responses to COVID-19 in England. In each of our five policy areas, the tracker documents a mix of data related to key policy interventions, including – where available – what it is, when it was introduced, who introduced it, the stated aims of the intervention, its key components, and links to relevant documents.
This part of the tracker focuses on the overall narrative of the government’s COVID-19 response. This includes how the government’s strategy has developed, the key policies it has pursued, and how these policies have been presented by government officials. It also includes major events or milestones to help tell the story of the government’s response.
This part of the tracker focuses on government policies to contain and limit the spread of COVID-19. This includes measures related to social distancing, transport restrictions, testing and contact tracing, and other parts of the public health response throughout the pandemic.
This part of the tracker focuses on the NHS and social care system’s response to prepare for and manage COVID-19 cases. This includes changes related to how care is delivered, as well as changes in policies on funding, workforce and capacity, payment systems, regulation, and other factors. We focus on changes introduced by national agencies, such as NHS England and Improvement, rather than the impact of COVID-19 or service changes in local areas.
This part of the tracker focuses on government interventions to support research and development related to COVID-19. This includes investment or support to develop COVID-19 vaccines and therapies, or guidance on research and development from government agencies. This part of the tracker does not track peer-reviewed research on COVID-19.
This part of the tracker focuses on government interventions to mitigate the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 and the government’s response to it. This includes measures to support the economy, individuals, and wider public services, as well as changes to legislation and new state powers related to the government’s COVID-19 response.
We focus only on publicly available data from official sources, such as speeches by government ministers, government guidance, and NHS planning documents. We only cover key policies or interventions in each area. And we don’t track media or expert commentary related to the pandemic and the government’s response (unless named officials are interviewed). More detail on scope and data sources we use can be found in the full tracker spreadsheets.
Help us improve the tracker
Inevitably, there will be speeches or policy guidance that we miss or choose not to include. Events are moving quickly and policy responses can move just as fast. There may also be other data worth collecting, or new ways to present it to make it easier to use.
Please email Phoebe Dunn from the Health Foundation's Policy team if you think anything is missing, incorrect, out of date, or could be improved.
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