When the news broke that a student from the University of York and his mother had contracted coronavirus at the end of January 2020, few could have predicted how our lives would be dictated by the same deadly disease more than twelve months on.
It has robbed lives and livelihoods, stretched the NHS to unimaginable lengths and put barriers between loved ones and communities.
Not to mention that young people have been stripped of crucial time at school, college and university, and the country’s mental health crisis has been deemed a ‘second pandemic.’
But hindsight means we can reflect on the lessons we’ve learnt during a year of ‘unprecedented times.’ And everyone has a story to tell.
We’ve spoken to a nurse on the front line about the toll of the virus, and a Bristol pub boss. And we’ve also taken a look at how the pandemic has unfolded in Bristol and the across the UK in the last year.
The virus: what we knew then and what we know now
“The worst case scenario is that up to 80% of the population could become infected, with people in hospital with pneumonia and a relatively high death rate among the elderly and frail.”
Those were the Government’s words in their coronavirus battle plan, published when the UK went into lockdown for the first time.
But as coronavirus deaths in the UK have now exceeded 100,000, the “worst case scenario” seems an outdated phrase.
In the 2020 battle plan, scientists predicted the UK would see a coronavirus peak ‘two to three months after sustained person-to-person transmission’ becomes established across the country.
They said there would then be a further two to three months of decline, meaning an outbreak could last around four to six months.
Although a second wave was expected after the initial March outbreak, after ‘eating out to help out’ and sending children back to school and students back to university, it became almost overwhelmingly clear the virus wasn’t going to be left behind in 2020.
A tiered system was introduced in England and locally, cases in Bristol and South Gloucestershire were rising at a worrying rate, and after plans for Christmas were given the green light, it wasn’t long before they were cancelled, as it became impossible to overlook the UK’s devastating case numbers.
The Government was right in saying elderly and people with pre-existing illnesses would be at highest risk, but younger people have been struck down by the disease and many more people have been left with ‘long covid’ a range of symptoms – some of which can be highly debilitating.
On New Year’s Day, it was reported an eight-year-old had died with the virus.
In March 2020, scientists predicted around 1 per cent of people who became infected “might end up dying.” Eleven months on, the number of coronavirus deaths in the UK stands at 108,000.
As of February 2021, people in high priority groups are being vaccinated and testing is becoming more accessible.
The situation in Bristol took a fresh twist in recent days, with cases of a new mutation of Covid mutation in the city.
The situation on the front line
A nurse who has worked in one of Bristol’s main hospitals for more than three years – who wishes to remain anonymous – told BristolLive how things have changed on the front line since the emergence of Covid-19 in the city a year ago.
“It’s completely different [to last year]” she said. “Staff are getting pulled regularly from the Covid-free wards…staff on Covid free wards are really struggling.”
When asked how NHS workers are coping now, compared with a year ago, the nurse said: “I think nurses in general are completely defeated.
“If there was any doubt that our profession was one that wasn’t respected before, it’s glaringly obvious now, from senior non-clinical management right up to the Government,” the nurse claimed.
Her comments echo a King’s Fund report published last September which found stress, absenteeism and turnover among midwives and nurses had reached alarmingly high levels.
The report,commissioned by the Royal College of Nursing Foundation, found this has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has laid bare and exacerbated longer-term issues including chronic excessive workload, inadequate working conditions, staff burnout and inequalities, particularly among minority ethnic groups.
New analysis carried out for the report suggested that this had a significant impact on staff retention, with around a quarter of nurses and health visitors joining the NHS leaving within three years of starting.
“Nurses in general are completely defeated”
The nurse said: “We’re still showing up to work after the disasters of the first wave with PPE, colleagues dying, contempt from the Government denying any form of pay rise but instead claiming we have already had a significant one.
“Nurses in their twenties new to the profession are completely burnt out already, wanting to work this pandemic and when it calms down, work solely agency so they can afford new degrees for a complete career change.
“A lot of the staff are done, but despite everything still don’t want to leave the public any more unsafe than they are already because of staffing.
“Mental health issues have soared, the support just isn’t there and there is judgement from management leaving the already depleted numbers with more gaps.”
“Last year the general public was scared, we all were. This was apparent with A&E being full of genuine emergencies only.
“This time round people are in A&E for things they know they shouldn’t be in hospital for, such as people recording empty corridors to prove the hospitals are empty.
“People talk about lack of PPE but I can’t remember how many times we’ve run out of body bags for patients in hospital.”
The NHS launched a recruitment drive last November aiming to build upon the existing 1.2 million-strong workforce.
The government announced 5,000 additional places for university courses in nursing and allied health professions, and grants and bursaries are available to support healthcare students through their studies, ranging from £5,000 to £8,000 each year.
A review of nurses’ pay is due in the Spring, despite calls for a pay rise last year. Chancellor Rishi Sunak said last November that nurses would not be subject to a public sector pay freeeze in 2021.
What Covid has taught pub owners
It’s no secret that the hospitality industry has been one of the hardest hit by Covid-19.
Pub and restaurant owners across Bristol have described their situations as ‘catastrophic’ and ‘dire’ over the past few months following abrupt lockdowns and tiered systems.
Catching up with Stephen Wallace, who runs Bristol’s Three Tuns, Golden Guinea and The Rising Sun, he tells me he’s “learnt a lot” after a year of having to comply with constantly-changing coronavirus restrictions.
“What I have learnt is that nothing is by any means certain,” says Stephen.
“I’ve learnt that – when it comes to Government announcements – you need to kind of read between the lines.
“We were planning to open up in December after the second lockdown, all our bills came out and we were ready to accommodate a big Christmas.
“But then we found out we couldn’t open in December. That was so bad and expensive.
“Next time we will be more cautious with opening.”
Stephen says the one restriction that really ‘killed them’ was the 10pm curfew. “Everything dropped off a cliff and business became unsustainable,” he said.
Unlike many across Bristol, Stephen’s pubs decided not to offer a takeaway beer service during the tiered lockdown.
“It’s a big risk,” says Stephen. “You’ve got to order a lot of beer and you run the risk of ‘what if this doesn’t sell?’
“We chose to batten down the hatches and promote the local breweries that we use.
“They did well in the summer but when winter approached there were issues with outside drinking.”
In the current lockdown, pubs cannot serve alcohol to takeaway to discourage people from gathering outside their premises.
Communities and families have learnt to appreciate the small things in life since Covid began.
This week BristolLive reported that a Mosque in Easton had teamed up with a charity for asylum seekers to provide food to those sleeping hungry.
At the end of 2020 I asked residents from across Bristol what has got them through 2020.
People had taken up new hobbies, like yoga, sewing, crafts, reading and walking.
People are getting in touch with nature, learning how to use FaceTime and perfect the art of a virtual Zoom quiz.
Read more: a timeline made by BristolLive reporters Conor Gogarty and Tristan Cork shows the most significant events from Bristol’s year of Covid.
Timeline: Bristol’s year of Covid
Early reports in November 2019
Reports of a new illness stemmed from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China.
The source of Covid-19 has not been confirmed, but Chinese scientists believe it to be a bat.
Bats were not sold at the Wuhan market but may have infected live chickens or other animals sold there, and in turn transmitted to humans.
In November last year, several workers at the wet market complained of a fever.
One of the first cases is believed to have been a 55-year-old local who had sought medical help by November 17.
China cases rise in December 2019
As December progressed, more people in Wuhan were falling severely ill, but the cause was unknown.
Dr Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old who worked at Wuhan City Central Hospital, posted his concerns in a chatroom with former medical school classmates in late December.
It is believed there were more than 1,000 cases in China by that point.
China informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) of the outbreak on December 31, but there was a clampdown on discussion of the coronavirus.
Police ordered Dr Li to sign a statement admitting he had acted illegally in sharing his fears.
Spread hits other countries in January
In early January, police shut down the wet market, but the spread was out of control.
The first person known to have died with coronavirus in Wuhan was a 61-year-old man, on January 11. By January 22, the death toll had risen to 22.
International travel continued, with 2,200 people travelling each month from Wuhan to Sydney and 15,000 to Bangkok.
Wuhan was locked down on January 23, no one allowed to leave.
But cases were already being confirmed in other countries, including Thailand, Japan, South Korea and the USA.
By the end of the month it had spread across Europe, and on January 30 there were confirmed cases in the UK – two Chinese nationals at a hotel in York.
Coronavirus becomes a concern in Bristol
It was in January that Bristol had its first coronavirus scares.
A 51-year-old Chinese woman found to have overstayed her visa was at the centre of an incident which led to two Bristol police stations being quarantined.
Patchway and Trinity Road stations were closed for five hours on January 22, following concerns a woman arrested on suspicion of an immigration offence may have had coronavirus, but the fears proved unfounded.
Then, on January 30, footage showed a hazmat unit descending on University of Bristol’s Wills Hall of residence in Stoke Bishop.
A student was rushed to hospital but tested negative for Covid-19.
It was to be more than a month before Bristol had its first confirmed case.
First death outside China confirmed in February
The first death in another country was reported on February 2, in the Philippines.
The Wuhan whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang died with coronavirus on Februrary 7. His wife was pregnant with their second child.
The Chinese death toll was growing rapidly, reaching 1,017 by February 11.
Italy then became the global epicentre of coronavirus. Two deaths in Lombardy were confirmed by February 23, leading to 11 towns being placed on lockdown.
The strict restrictions on Wuhan were easing the spread in China – and on February 26, more new cases (459) were reported outside of China than in it (412).
The UK saw its first case in someone who had not been abroad and was not related to someone with the illness. This Surrey man was diagnosed on February 28.
Pandemic confirmed as UK has first death
By early March, the UK was still yet to close schools. At the time, the Government was not aware of evidence of transmission to or from children.
The UK’s first death with Covid-19 was confirmed on March 5, a woman in her 70s who passed away at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. She had not spent time abroad recently.
The WHO declared a pandemic on March 11, with more than 120,000 cases worldwide.
Coronavirus hits Bristol
Bristol’s first tangible link with the virus came in early March, when an office block in the city centre was deep-cleaned because a worker had tested positive.
The 35-year-old EDF employee, based at Bridgewater House in Finzels Reach, had flown from London to Hong Kong on February 27, then a boat to Shenzhen, where he fell unwell.
After his diagnosis was confirmed, EDF deep-cleaned Bridgewater House as a precaution on March 2.
Four days later, the city had its first confirmed case.
Public Health England (PHE) said: “The case is a resident of Bristol and became infected whilst in north Italy.”
By this time, 15 people in the South West had tested positive.
North Somerset’s first case was confirmed on March 10 and South Gloucestershire’s on March 11.
Bristol Airport controversy
Bristol Airport was on the end of criticism over an alleged lack of information to those landing there.
A woman who arrived from Milan on March 9 said she was “shocked” by the lack of checks and advice at Bristol Airport.
Rosalba Castiglione, who lives near Kingswood, said: “There was no information telling us to self-isolate, just a map showing us the affected areas in Italy and an NHS advice poster telling people to call 111.”
The official Government advice by that point was for anyone travelling from Italy to self-isolate.
Rosalba said she felt “lost” and several other passengers made complaints about a lack of information at the airport, which declined to comment on the criticism.
Major events near Bristol go ahead
There was criticism of Cheltenham Festival deciding to go ahead, with more than 250,000 people attending between March 10 and 13.
Celebrities including Lee Mack and Andrew Parker Bowles both said they believed their attendance at the event led to them contracting the illness.
The festival organisers pointed out they had complied with Government guidance. The day before it started, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said there was “no rationale” to postponing events.
And more than 6,000 runners took part in the Bath Half Marathon on March 15, despite calls for it to be cancelled and Bath MP Wera Hobhouse saying it was “simply not worth the risk”.
Organisers said the risk of infection from outdoor events remained low.
Student cases and first death in Bristol
On March 12, the University of Bristol confirmed a student had tested positive for Covid-19 after returning to the city from abroad.
The student was living at Orchard Heights in Frogmore Street, a hall of residence with more than 450 beds.
Unite, which runs Orchard Heights, organised a deep clean and the university postponed studies days later.
By this time, there were five confirmed Bristol cases and 798 across the country.
Nick Matthews, a 59-year-old with underlying health conditions, died in the Bristol Royal Infirmary on March 14.
His wife Mary said she lost her “soul mate” and “best friend” when the retired police officer, from Nailsea, passed away.
On March 23, following weeks of calls for a more decisive response, the UK entered lockdown.
The Prime Minister told the country all non-essential shops would be shut and ordered people to stay home as much as possible.
Bus driver Martin Egan, who was based at First’s Lawrence Hill depot, died on March 28 after falling ill with Covid-19.
By the end of March, Bristol had seen 103 confirmed coronavirus cases and three confirmed deaths.
Throughout April, Bristol’s numbers of positive cases increased rapidly – with more than 600 positive cases by the end of April compared with little more than 100 at the start of the month.
Meanwhile, positive case numbers in South Gloucestershire increased more slowly, and in North Somerset and Bath & North East Somerset slower still. There were fewer than 100 in each local authority area at the start of April, and then 200 to 300 by the end of the month.
On May 1, the number of positive cases in North Somerset was largely parallelling those in neighbouring B&NES – both below South Gloucestershire and well below Bristol’s.
But in the month of May, cases in North Somerset rose rapidly.
At the start of the month, the number of positive cases in North Somerset stood at 234. By May 29, it had almost doubled in just one month, to 441.
This coincided with an outbreak which prompted the health authorities to temporarily close Weston General Hospital to all admissions, as it tried to deal with the number of cases among patients and staff.
A whistleblower later voiced concerns to Bristol Live over the infection control measures at the hospital before the outbreak.
The Government’s data map gives a good indication of how the situation changed in the summer.
The colour code shows how high case rate is. If it’s white, the number of people catching coronavirus is so low – either two, one or zero in an entire week – that the Government statisticians don’t even bother to work out the case rate.
A lime yellow is a case rate below ten, and as the case rate increases, the greens turn to blue. The very highest case rate – anything over 400 cases per 100,000 people in a week – is coloured purple.
The summer ended on an optimistic note, with new cases of coronavirus negligible right across Bristol.
In the week of August 3, the first day of the Government’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme, every single area of Bristol had so few cases as to not trouble the scorers.
By the end of August, as summer turned to autumn, case rates in many parts of the city had begun to rise.
The whites had turned to green in some parts.
At the start of September, eight people had tested positive in Bedminster. This is telling, such a low number in a very populated part of the city, and it meant Bedminster had a case rate of just 80.4.
On September 3, the schools returned. In the third and fourth weeks of September, thousands of students returned to the University of Bristol.
It wasn’t until the end of September that new cases suddenly increased.
Almost all the areas of the city that had been white were green and dark green, and some blue. It would take a couple of weeks for the effect to be seen on the data map.
The most concentrated number of cases was in the heart of Bristol’s student land – Cotham. Where 21 people tested positive for the virus in a seven-day period to October 2, giving a case rate of 234.
Within a week, it was clear Bristol was seeing a level of coronavirus cases that it hadn’t seen in the first wave.
On October 9, the weekly rolling case rate had increased significantly. The leafy student area of Stoke Bishop – home to many of the university’s halls of residence shot to the top of the list.
In the week to October 2, 10 people there had tested positive for coronavirus. In the following seven days, that went from 10 to 262. The rolling case rate of 2,808.6 that week was one of the highest seen in Britain in both waves of the coronavirus pandemic.
Halls of residence were put into quarantine and the second wave had begun.
New cases were massively concentrated in the city centre, Cotham, Clifton and Stoke Bishop – where the students are.
Some areas of the city, especially in the south, still had zero new cases. But the virus wasn’t just spreading in the student areas.
Right across north and east Bristol – from St Pauls to Frenchay and up to Filton and across to Kingswood, case rates were above 100 and climbing. These were areas without large numbers, or maybe any, university students, and yet still dozens of people had caught covid-19 in the first week of October there.
The following week, on October 14, the Government introduced a tier system and while much of the north of England was put into tougher restrictions, Bristol wasn’t – it was in Tier 1 and continued pretty much as normal, with bars and restaurants open, sport being played, people meeting outdoors.
The following day, October 15, Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer called for a ‘firebreak’ lockdown of two weeks for the end of October to coincide with half term. It had been suggested back in September by the Government’s scientific advisors, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson opted to continue with the tier system for the rest of October.
By the third week of October, the effect of the return of students to the University of the West of England – who arrived a week or two after their Bristol counterparts – could be seen.
In the second week of October, those seven days to October 16 where Bristol’s explosion of cases in the Bristol Uni areas had not prompted a higher Tier for the city, just 35 people in Frenchay and Great Stoke had tested positive for coronavirus. In the next seven days, 183 people did.
By the end of October, the map had turned purple from Staple Hill to Avonmouth and from Filton in the north to Highridge in the south. Barely a handful of areas had case rates below 100, whereas only four weeks earlier, only a handful had case rates above 100.
On October 28, the mayor Marvin Rees and director of public health Christina Gray announced Bristol was in Tier 1-plus, with extra resources to employ ‘Covid marshals’. With the Government still refusing to put Bristol into a higher tier, it was all they could do to portray the severity of the outbreak in the city at that point.
Within a week, the situation across the country had caught up with Bristol and the north of England, and Boris Johnson finally announced, starting on November 5, a four-week national lockdown.
Bristol went into that national lockdown with a city-wide case rate average of 462 cases per 100,000. Lockdown took a while to have any impact – the people testing positive in the second week of November had probably caught the virus before lockdown began.
The case rate rose again, to 489.
It wasn’t until the third and fourth weeks of lockdown that the numbers of new cases began to fall – and that was despite there being more testing than ever going on in the city.
Bristol emerged from lockdown in Tier 3 with a lower case rate than when the city remained in Tier 1 at the end of October.
Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire were all in Tier 3 when lockdown ended for the second time.
With the case rate dropping in Bristol and North Somerset, those two areas were allowed to go down to Tier 2 on December 19, allowing restaurants and pubs to open not just as takeaways.
This was short-lived though, as they returned to Tier 3 just a week later. In the previous seven days, Bristol’s case rate had increased by 26 per cent to 151 per 100,000 people.
North Somerset’s rose by the same percentage, reaching a rate of 149.
It came as the South West started to see a rise in cases of a new, more infectious variant which had already become dominant in the South East.
The South West has seen the new strain spread far slower than some areas, though cases of it still nearly doubled across the region during the month to December 18.
Only 0.11 per cent of people in the region were thought to have the new form of coronavirus on November 18. This reached 0.21 per cent by December 18.
As of December 29, Bristol has a case rate of 193.4, North Somerset 210.2 and South Gloucestershire 192.2.
Throughout the pandemic, 343 people have died in Bristol with Covid-19 on their death certificate, 243 in South Gloucestershire and 197 in North Somerset.
What have you learnt from the Covid crisis? Are you a business that has had to adapt? Get in touch with Beth by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org