As the coronavirus pandemic approaches the end of its second year, few would have thought there would still be talk of possible lockdowns to fight off the threat of a new variant.
The year started with the country being plunged into its third lockdown as the second wave of the virus began to take hold, stretching NHS resources as cases, hospitalisations and deaths spiralled.
And despite eventually coming out of lockdown and returning to something close to normality, the virus persisted, with new, deadlier variants emerging and continuing to disrupt everyday life.
Read more of the top stories from across Cheshire here.
As of December 22, the total number of people who had died in the UK within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test was 147,573 with 11,647,473 positive tests since the start of the pandemic.
According to the same government figures, a total of 2,703 people have died across the four local authorities in Cheshire.
As the new variant, Omicron, rapidly spreads across the country, it looks likely that tighter restrictions will be back by the end of the year or early 2022 at the latest.
Here are the key Covid-related events that happened in the UK and Cheshire during 2021.
Following a disrupted Christmas, Boris Johnson announced on January 4 that England would once again be placed under lockdown with the same strict ‘stay at home’ order as the first back in March 2020.
Just a day or two after the restrictions were implemented, the Countess of Chester Hospital CEO Dr Susan Gilby told CheshireLive they were in a ‘far worse position’ than the previous peak in April 2020.
At that time about 50 per cent of the hospital’s general and acute beds are taken up by coronavirus patients.
She said she ‘would’ve welcomed’ an ‘earlier and harder’ national lockdown, adding that the Tier system had not been working.
“We are worried that we may get to a point where we are not able to offer the care at the levels that we would want to people, whatever illness they present with,” she said.
The hospital would admit 32 patients in one day on January 15. Six days later, it would hit its peak of 290 Covid patients in hospital at one time.
The full lockdown would remain in place until March when restrictions started to ease, lifting entirely in July.
Roadmap out of lockdown
Boris Johnson announced the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown in February.
As part of step one of the plan, he confirmed schools would reopen on March 8 to all students while exercise or recreation was allowed with one other person and funerals/weddings could resume with limited numbers.
Part two of the first step saw the rule of six reintroduced for outdoor gatherings on March 29 while outdoor sports and leisure facilities could reopen.
Step two on April 12 reopened hospitality in outdoor settings as libraries, outdoor attractions and all retail also reopened.
Step three on May 17 saw the return of indoor mixing of up to six people while up to 30 could gather outdoors. Some large events could go ahead and indoor entertainment, including cinemas, could open up.
And finally step four, which was delayed until July 19, removed all restrictions on social contact with the reopening of nightclubs and large events.
Cheshire’s April reopening
On April 12, outdoor hospitality, attractions and all retail reopened for the first time in 2021.
The streets of Chester city centre were filled with outdoor diners as the sun shone down to mark the occasion as businesses welcomed back customers.
Among the venues to reopen was Chester Zoo, with CEO Jamie Christon speaking about how delighted the staff at the zoo were to welcome visitors back.
He said: “We’re tremendously excited. It’s been a long time coming, this lockdown has been going on for a long, long time – it’s been a real rollercoaster of a year for us, so to get open today and hopefully stay open, is absolutely tremendous.”
The Delta variant surge
First discovered in India towards the end of 2020, the Asian country fell into a deep crisis as Covid gripped the nation, leaving hospitals overrun.
Towards the end of April, Ellesmere Port dad Vernon Rose spoke to Cheshire Live about his parents, who had fallen ill with Covid and were hospitalised in the Indian city of Pune.
As well as the heartbreak of not being able to go and see them with travel restrictions in place, he was forking out close to £1,000 per day for their treatment.
He issued a grim warning to people in Cheshire about the Indian variant, as it was known then.
“No doctor in India, not one, knows how to contain this virus. This virus is mutating, it’s developing, it’s adapting and it’s not only attacking the lungs,” he said.
“This variant of the virus is very different to the Chinese variant, the UK variant or the South African variant. This one is very deadly, it’s very aggressive and it’s very, very fast.”
Once it came to the UK, it quickly became the dominant Covid variant – rapidly affecting parts of Cheshire.
In June, all residents in Northwich and Winsford were urged to get a PCR test as a result of a ‘large increase’ of Covid cases believed to be a result of the Delta variant.
This would go on to happen in other parts of Cheshire, including in Crewe and Macclesfield.
The spread of the more-contagious Delta variant along with the remaining rules regarding self-isolation, began to impact businesses and supply chains throughout the spring and summer.
Hospitality venues were among those hit but there were also major construction projects that saw delays.
This included the now-completed improvements to junction 19 of the M6, which was originally meant to have finished in August but was pushed back to November.
A spokesperson for National Highways said it was ‘entirely attributed to the global shortages of materials caused by the pandemic’..
Among the issues were delays in the delivery of traffic signal poles from Holland, drainage units and the international chip shortage.
Omicron, Plan B and Christmas
In early November, scientists in South Africa discovered the signs of a new variant that caused a huge spike in cases across the country – it was later named Omicron.
The ease with which the variant spread caused widespread concern across the world including in the UK and travel to and from Africa was subsequently shut down.
But towards the end of November, the first two cases of Omicron were identified in the UK – one in Chelmsford and one in Nottingham.
It would not reach Cheshire until December but public health leaders in the county warned that a ‘difficult winter has arrived’.
The first reports of suspected Omicron cases in Cheshire came from Warrington with the council carrying out ‘robust contact tracing has taken place to inform their contacts’.
It has continued to spread across the county and in the two weeks to December 11, there were 226 cases of the Omicron variant in Cheshire West and Chester, 192 in Cheshire East, 183 in Warrington and 35 in Halton.
The Government eventually implemented Plan B rules – wearing of face masks indoors, Covid passes for some large events and working from home – and the booster jab rollout was expanded.
But this caused outrage across the hospitality sector, with Cheshire BID among those calling for the Government to support the sector.
The Chancellor eventually announced £1 billion of funding for businesses affected by the current Covid wave – £6,000 per venue.
There were fears the Omicron wave could lead to Christmas restrictions but Boris Johnson recently announced this would not be the case, though it is thought a return to Step 2 of the roadmap would be on the cars after Christmas, including hospitality limited to outdoor service.