Sky News has charted the entire course of the pandemic from the first reporting of the disease to the end of January 2021.
By Nick Stylianou, senior producer
The definitive timeline of the UK Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t exist. It’s likely it never will – until academics of the future reach a consensus on which decisions verifiably influenced which events, when COVID-19 is able to be viewed as an emotionless topic of historical discussion.
But to start that process – and to start analysing what lessons can be learned from the COVID crisis – the unfolding of the national response needs examining as soon as possible. After more than one hundred thousand deaths it is time to assess the opportunities taken and missed in response to the virus.
‘COVID Crisis: Learning the Lessons’, a series of special programmes on 9th, 10th and 11th February 2021 analysed 56 separate dates and highlighted 75 collections of data along four different themes, spanning hundreds of different events, statistics and stories. For the first time, Sky News is publishing the work behind that effort in a statement of intent about the importance of public interest journalism ahead of any inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.
The only way we found we were able to construct coherent and accurate narratives meant charting the entire course of the pandemic from the very first reporting of the disease to the end of January 2021 – the twelve month anniversary of confirmed cases arriving in the UK.
At almost 130 pages and nearly 55,000 words, the PDF you can download and view below was put together by a team collating contemporaneous reporting from Sky News as well as primary sources from the Office for National Statistics, the government’s own transparency documents, the NHS, the House of Commons and many more.
To avoid being crushed by the sheer weight of information during the most information-heavy periods of the pandemic (like during Spring where the intersecting epidemics of the PPE crisis, care home outbreaks and economic collapse were changing hourly), the job had to be done through a series of layers. Otherwise it would be impossible to filter out what was truly relevant – you’d never make it past April without second-guessing yourself.
Mapping out the backbone of the timeline required the most reliable and the most regular sources of information to be input first: minutes from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE). After that, the Downing Street briefings that took place from March. Then a layer of business events was put on top of that, and another layer of the personal protective equipment (PPE) supply saga on top of that…and so on.
Settling on seven colours to label our layered approach meant that by repeating this process through the timeline over and over again we could build as deep a timeline as it was broad – and it made the daunting task far more manageable.
Those seven layered categories were: SAGE; business/economic/travel measures; PPE/ventilators/medical equipment; vaccines; testing, tracking and tracing; statistics; international events.
But what started as a resource-gathering exercise became a very human process of questions and answers. The more we looked at the timeline the more we’d find an announcement that had no follow-up, or a resumption of something we’d never covered stopping. Filling in those gaps was like tying up loose ends or being able to solve the most unsatisfying cliffhangers.
This timeline is, in a way, its own knowledge base. The programmes covered the timing of lockdowns, the need for an education strategy, whether the government kept people safe and if hospitals managed to change the fortunes of those most severely ill. But the document will hopefully be able to go further and serve better all those looking for an impartial insight into the pandemic.
There will be revisions and substitutions in years to come, but for now this is the first major draft of scrutiny in order to inform journalists, policymakers and historians so that those academics of the future can better reach a conclusion on the UK’s management of the pandemic.