Portrait of the week

Portrait of the week: Salmond cleared, Olympics postponed and Britain told to stay home

28 March 2020

9:00 AM

28 March 2020

9:00 AM


Sunday dawned with 233 people in the United Kingdom dead thus far from the coronavirus Covid-19 (a week earlier it had been 21), and more than 12,000 in the world. Three days later it was 442 in the UK and more than 18,000 worldwide. About 107,000 of the world’s 410,000 cases detected had recovered. A billion people in the world were confined to their homes, joined from Sunday by a billion more in India, where confusion reigned. Testing was uneven, but, in fatalities, Italy, with 6,820 by Tuesday, had gone far beyond China (with 3,277). Iran admitted to 1,934 deaths and Spain had 2,800. China was reporting few new home-transmitted cases and Wuhan was to lift its lockdown in April. Harvey Weinstein, serving 23 years in a New York state prison, was found to have coronavirus.

The government prohibited people leaving their homes except for ‘very limited purposes’. People not living together were banned from gathering out of doors; ‘one form of exercise a day’ was allowed. The government closed shops, with exceptions, and places of worship. Weddings were prohibited but not funerals. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, said: ‘You must stay at home.’ The action followed pictures of people flocking in fine weekend weather to parks and the seaside. The Commons debated in a day a 328-page Coronavirus Bill with wide powers; the government agreed to review these powers every six months. The government had earlier closed pubs, restaurants, cafés, theatres, cinemas and gyms. Schools were closed, but children of ‘key workers’ were allowed to attend, being between 10 and 20 per cent of pupils. The government took over the running of railways. Timetables for London Underground trains had been reduced, leading to unhealthy crowding.

The National Health Service agreed with private providers to make use of 8,000 more hospital beds in England to add to the 30,000 (of an overall 100,000) meant to be freed by postponing non-urgent operations. The NHS wrote to 50,000 nurses and 15,500 doctors who were no longer active asking them to return. The NHS identified 1.5 million vulnerable people and tried to send them text messages saying: ‘Home is the safest place for you.’ Food for them was a different question. The government sought 250,000 volunteers and set up a hospital for 4,000 at the ExCel centre in the London Docks. People over 70 were also told to avoid all social contact. The able-bodied bought large amounts in supermarkets, leaving shelves bare.

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced a scheme whereby 80 per cent of the wages of those unable to work would be paid if employers kept them on, up to £2,500 each per month. Company VAT payments were deferred until the end of June and self-assessment income-tax payments on account for July 2020 deferred for six months. The FTSE fell below 5,000. Workers at the Coylumbridge Hotel near Aviemore were given a letter saying ‘Your employment has been terminated’ and were told to ‘vacate the hotel accommodation immediately’; the owners, Britannia Hotels, later said that it was ‘an administrative error’. Country-dwellers feared an influx from cities; the MP for St Austell said ‘Please do not come to Cornwall’, and the island of Barra said it was closed.

With the collapse of the Schengen free-movement area, the EU tried to set up a system by which lorries could cross borders within 15 minutes. In Madrid there was acacerolada protest against the government by the banging of cooking-pots. The US Senate rejected an aid package of $1,800 billion, but hope of it passing gave the Dow its best day for 87 years. The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo were postponed for a year.


Alex Salmond, the former Scottish National Party leader, was cleared of sexually assaulting nine women while he was the first minister of Scotland, being found not guilty on 12 of the sexual assault charges facing him, with another charge found not proven. In a riot at La Modelo prison in Bogotá, Colombia, 23 died. Betty Williams, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who had co-founded Northern Ireland’s Peace People in 1976, died aged 76. Kenny Rogers, the country and western singer who sold more than 150 million records, died aged 81. Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, flew to Kabul to try to save the Afghan peace agreement. An earthquake of 5.3 magnitude damaged buildings in Zagreb, Croatia. CSH

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