When did lockdown begin in the UK?

22 July 2020
What was claimed

The lockdown began on 16 March 2020, when Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that all unnecessary social contact should cease.

Our verdict

Mr Hancock did say this, but it was not until 23 March 2020 that Boris Johnson told the country that people ‘must’ stay at home and certain businesses must close. Government ministers have previously described this second date as the start of lockdown. There is no official government definition of ‘lockdown’.

“The 16th of March is the day that I came to this House and said that all unnecessary social contact should cease. That is precisely when the lockdown was started.”

Matt Hancock MP, 16 July 2020

Matt Hancock, the health and social care secretary, has claimed that the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK began on 16 March 2020, when he told the House of Commons that “unnecessary social contact” should be avoided. There is no official government definition of what a ‘lockdown’ is. However, it was not until 23 March 2020 that Prime Minister Boris Johnson told people they “must” stay at home and required some businesses to close. This has been referred to as the start of lockdown by government ministers, including Mr Hancock, previously. 

On 16 July, a few hours before Mr Hancock’s appearance in the House of Commons where he made the claim about the date lockdown began, the government chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance gave evidence to the science and technology committee. In describing the “series of steps in the run up to lockdown,” he said the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) had advised the government on either 16 or 18 March that “the remainder of the measures should be introduced as soon as possible” once it became clear how quickly Covid-19 was spreading. 

Asked about this by shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth in the House of Commons later that day, Mr Hancock said the lockdown began on 16 March, when he warned that unnecessary social contact should end. Pressed on the matter by Labour MP Zarah Sultana, Mr Hancock said 16 March “is when the lockdown truly started”.

On 21 July, at an appearance in front of the science and technology committee, Mr Hancock said: “The idea that lockdown is a date is wrong, because actually what matters epidemiologically is the behaviour of people and you saw throughout this period, people were going about their ordinary business less and less.”

What have government ministers said?

Government ministers, including Mr Hancock himself, have repeatedly said lockdown began on 23 March.

In a daily briefing on 1 June, Mr Hancock said the figure for deaths was the “lowest figure since lockdown began on 23 March”. On 2 June, he told the House of Commons that he had announced the day before that the level of daily deaths “is lower than at any time since lockdown began on 23 March”. On 8 June, he said the level of fatalities was “the lowest number since 21 March, before lockdown began”.  

In a speech on 11 May, Boris Johnson referred to “the period of lockdown which started on March 23rd”. This exact phrasing was echoed by housing and communities secretary Robert Jenrick two days later on 13 May, by education secretary Gavin Williamson on 16 May, by environment secretary George Eustice on 19 May, and by culture secretary Oliver Dowden on 20 May

Business secretary Alok Sharma has repeatedly spoken of lockdown being introduced on 23 March. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said lockdown began “at the end of March” in a speech on 18 May. And when announcing the need for face coverings on public transport on 4 June, transport secretary Grant Shapps said there had been significant falls in the use of public transport “even before lockdown was introduced on 23 March”.

What happened on 16 March?

Minutes from the meeting of SAGE on 16 March said there is “clear evidence to support additional social distancing measures be introduced as soon as possible.”

The same day, Mr Hancock updated the House of Commons on the government’s plan to fight coronavirus. This included a new requirement to isolate for two weeks if you or a member of your household has symptoms, and advice “against all unnecessary social contact with others and unnecessary travel”. He said people should work from home if they possibly can, and avoid pubs, clubs, cinemas and restaurants. However, he stopped short of telling people they must stay at home, or telling these businesses to close.

What happened on 23 March?

In a televised announcement on 23 March, Mr Johnson said: “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction - you must stay at home.”

This instruction included the “very limited purposes” for which people were allowed to leave their homes, such as shopping for necessities, one form of exercise a day or travelling to work if they could not work from home, and banned gatherings of more than two people from different households in public. Non-essential shops were told to close, and social events including weddings were stopped. Mr Johnson warned the police could enforce the rules. 

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