Inside the outbreak: photographing England during Covid pandemic

Early on during the pandemic I’d seen a short film from the Philippines and read an extended blog from northern Italy, both featuring photographers dressed in hazmat suits, toting cameras housed beneath protective covers. Embedded with paramedics as they dealt with seriously ill patients, my fellow photojournalists sensitively showed doctors in sweltering emergency hospital pop-up units or portrayed intimate moments as spouses and other terrified family members bid farewell to their loved ones as they were stretchered from their homes, some for the last time.

Over the following weeks I was drawn to the frequent updates of the legendary photographer Peter Turnley’s remarkable black-and-white street portraits from New York (and later Paris, his adopted home). They showed exhausted medical staff outside trauma centres, lonely subway travellers, homeless wanderers and an assortment of essential workers and normal residents who were just about holding things together. The biggest city in the US rapidly became one of the centres of the outbreak and suffered a correspondingly large death toll. Turnley showed immense bravery to walk the streets each day and his empathic approach towards subjects rewarded him as he witnessed tender moments which he skilfully captured for history.

16 March – Piccadilly in Manchester

“City centres were hollowing out as many offices closed and employees worked from home. It’s so difficult to make a pleasing picture of an empty urban scene. To my mind it just looks like a Sunday morning from decades ago before seven-day shopping was permitted.”

It was recently suggested that I write about my own year of covering the pandemic. On the last day of January, as half the country prepared to celebrate Britain’s exit from the EU, I was at Arrowe Park hospital in Wirral as security fences were erected to contain the first planeload of Britons evacuated from coronavirus-hit Wuhan. In the subsequent weeks worrying developments from around the world were noted but there was a relative lull in activity on my patch.

31 January – Preparations being made at Arrowe Park hospital at Upton, Wirral

That all changed late one afternoon in mid-March when I answered an unusually frantic call from a picture editor asking me to get photographs of busy hospitals. For a few days wire agency photographers had been capturing compelling images of furious activity and ambulances outside London A&E units. The pictures added to the feeling that the NHS was in danger of being overrun as the coronavirus quickly took hold. It would be another week before the introduction of the national lockdown but we knew it was coming. The senior editors needed to illustrate the fast-changing story for the following day’s print edition and were desperate for pictures from the provinces to balance the visual coverage from the capital.

I drove past two hospitals but all was calm and a quick call to the comms team at a third confirmed they too were quiet and, possibly not wanting to be singled out, they couldn’t let me on site anyway. We had to accept that London was experiencing events before other parts of the country and change tack. Facing an understandable lack of access to NHS hospital wards, little prospect of accompanying ambulance crews and dealing with the shortage of protective equipment, I was charged with documenting the daily reality of everyday life in northern England – and occasionally beyond – as the nation grappled with the biggest worldwide health crisis for over a century.

18 March 2020 - Vicky Sergeant and her daughter Kleio writing chalk messages of support for NHS workers at the Royal Preston hospital in Lancashire

“The emergency ambulance bays are visible from the road but the hospital looked no different to normal. I chanced upon the uplifting scene as a young mother and her daughter wrote messages of support to hospital staff.”

As lockdown was imposed, the general public were instructed to stay at home but I was issued with a signed letter from the editor-in-chief clarifying that I was a key worker as defined by the government, entitling travel to and from work. A copy was printed off to carry alongside my cameras and a spare was kept in the car’s glovebox in case I was stopped at the rumoured police checkpoints. It was a gratefully welcomed passport to roam and a daily incentive to keep on working no matter how unnerving and unfamiliar I found the world beyond my doorstep.

On 24 March, as many workers faced the uncertainty and worry of being furloughed or fathomed out how to set up Zoom for the first time, I set off on the first leg of a lockdown visual journey. Now, as we approach the end of the year, the mileometer is clicking towards 20,000 miles and the destination list reads like the back of a band’s UK tour T-shirt featuring scores of towns and cities with extra return dates in Leicester, Nottingham, Manchester University, Bolton, Sheffield and Liverpool. None were added by popular demand. I naively assumed things would be back to normal after a few weeks but I ended up spending the rest of the year visiting one Covid hotspot after another, with a few moments of joyous normality and the odd glimmer of hope in between.

19 March – A visitor taking photographs outside Liverpool FC’s Anfield stadium where the team were due to play Crystal Palace

  • 19 March: a visitor taking photos outside Anfield, where Liverpool FC were due to play Crystal Palace. The FA announced the indefinite extension of the season and that all fixtures were now postponed until the beginning of May

“Anfield on non-match days has become a bustling tourist destination especially since the recent redevelopment of the ground and the trophy-laden success of the team on the pitch. This day, the grand new concourse was virtually empty. The club’s in-house TV company were set up to gauge reaction to the news from passing fans but for a couple of hours there were none. In desperation they asked if I’d be willing to appear.”

25 March – Bridgedale House dementia care home in Fulwood, Sheffield, England, where the staff are locked in with residents to protect them from the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“I’d gone to photograph the wonderful staff who had left their families and moved in full-time to protect the residents. I obviously had to work from a distance but I witnessed the most uplifting experience of the spring as these women waved enthusiastically through the care home’s conservatory window.”

26 March – Residents in Manchester, England, taking part in the Clap For Our Carers campaign, people across the UK applauding NHS workers from the doorsteps, balconies or windows of their homes, in order to say thank you for all of their hard work dealing with the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“It was a last-minute decision to try and cover what turned out to be the first of many clap for carers events. I only just got there in time and was lucky to find a cluster of residents who came out on to their balconies.”

10 April – A near deserted beach and promenade in Blackpool, England. Lockdown restrictions during the continuing Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic have prevented holidaymakers and day trippers from travelling to the resort on Easter weekend, the traditional start of the holiday season.

“I’d previously spent a year photographing Blackpool beach for a project and I’d never seen the beach this quiet during the day at low tide.”

14 April – People taking their daily exercise past a field of oilseed rape at Rainford, Merseyside, as lockdown measures continue

  • 14 April: people taking their daily exercise through a field of oilseed rape in Rainford, Merseyside, as lockdown measures continue during the pandemic

30 April – A man crossing the road during rain showers in Blackburn

“The next month, the government cancelled multi-household gatherings in an announcement on the evening before Eid celebrations to mark the end of Ramadan.”

5 May – Dan Smith, a volunteer with Misaskim, photographed with the newly dug graves at Rainsough cemetery in north Manchester

  • 5 May: Dan Smith, a volunteer with Misaskim, with newly dug graves at Rainsough cemetery in north Manchester. He arranged 80 funerals in just over a month after the Jewish community in north Manchester suffered a disproportionately high number of coronavirus-related deaths. His own father died in London after contracting the disease

12 May – A giant poster featuring the faces of key workers outside the rugby ground at Barrow-in-Furness

  • 12 May: a giant poster featuring the faces of key workers outside the rugby ground at Barrow-in-Furness. Barrow Raiders erected the tribute to thank NHS and other key workers. It includes a monochrome portrait of Simon Guest, a radiographer at Furness general hospital, who died after contracting Covid-19. The Cumbrian town has one of the highest infection rates in the country outside London

13 May – Kate Holt at home in Kentmere, Cumbria, with her mother, Shirley, who she rescued from a care home

  • 13 May: Kate Holt at home in Kentmere, Cumbria, with her mother, Shirley, who she rescued from a care home after she became concerned she was regressing after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic

“Kate’s family property couldn’t be more remote and isolated from the likely ravages of the coronavirus. Her mum was a delight as was the view across the valley.”

18 May – A mural painted in the Northern Quarter by Manchester-based street artist Akse, featuring a portrait of NHS operating department practitioner (ODP) Debra Williams

“Lifelike painted tributes were popping up all over many cities and certainly helped myself and many other photographers to illustrate the ongoing story. Much later in the year my editors sent out a note saying they’d got mural fatigue and never wanted to see any more wall art. Ever.

“Of course the next day’s front page was dominated by a lovely picture by Getty Images’ photographer Christopher Furlong.”

26 May – Durham Cathedral on the horizon as visitors to Observatory Hill look out over the city on a sunny afternoon

  • 26 May: Durham Cathedral on the horizon as visitors look out over the city. The government adviser Dominic Cummings faced criticism after he drove to Durham while suffering Covid-19 symptoms, in direct contravention of the guidelines which he helped to devise

27 May – A family cycles past independent shops in Chorlton, south Manchester

  • 27 May: a family cycle past independent shops in Chorlton, south Manchester. Most had been trading during the coronavirus lockdown as people look to source food locally. Floral Affair had even changed from a florist to a small greengrocer’s shop to meet local demand during the Covid-19 pandemic but the owners hoped to continue selling fruit, vegetables and flowers in the long term

3 June – A new mural by street artist Akse, being painted in the Northern Quarter, Manchester, of George Floyd

  • 3 June – A new mural by Akse in the Northern Quarter, Manchester, of George Floyd, who died in custody in Minneapolis, US, after a police officer knelt on his neck. Floyd’s death sparked violence in US cities and Black Lives Matter protests around the globe

“This was during the first lockdown in Manchester and only a handful of passersby stopped to admire the mural and take pictures for Instagram. As anger grew, by the following weekend thousands of people gathered in a city square to support Black Lives Matter.”

4 June – Tracy Briggs at home in Chorlton, south Manchester, still struggling with symptoms 84 days after first contracting Covid-19

  • 4 June: Tracy Briggs at home in Chorlton, south Manchester, still struggling with symptoms 84 days after first contracting Covid-19

“Tracy gave me an update, 16 December 2020: ‘Nine months on, long Covid continues to significantly impact on my life at home and I have not yet been able to return to work. My problems with palpitations and marked breathlessness persist and although science has made amazing advances in understanding Covid in 2020, what is causing long Covid and how to treat it remains elusive and I hope that will be one of the breakthroughs in 2021.’”

17 June – Visitors enjoying the first Bingo Bedlam, a socially distant drive-in bingo and singalong music session, held during a thunderstorm at Event City in Manchester

  • 17 June: visitors enjoying the first Bingo Bedlam, a socially distant drive-in bingo and singalong music session, held during a thunderstorm at EventCity in Manchester. The first evening of the summer series – which also includes comedy nights, in-car discos and outdoor cinema screenings – was reserved for NHS employees, their families and other key workers, as thanks for their efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic

19 June – Everyday life in Hartlepool, County Durham, as Britain looks towards a life beyond lockdown

  • 19 June: everyday life in Hartlepool, County Durham, as Britain looked towards a life beyond lockdown. A couple kiss as they part after walking together on the edge of Hartlepool town centre.

14 July – The North Evington and Spinney Hills area of Leicester which is under a local lockdown

  • 14 July: the North Evington and Spinney Hills area of Leicester, which was under a local lockdown as new Covid-19 cases in the city remained in excess of 100 per 100,000 population.

These three friends were resting in a park which also contained a community Covid-19 testing site. There had been a lot of negativity about some media coverage of the city with the worst infection rates in the country at that time. Under the circumstances I felt I needed to explain who I was and requested permission to make a photo of them. Most people would have sat straight up so I was fortunate they stayed exactly as I found them.”

4 August – Sunshine on the beach at Rhyl on the north Wales coast, where unemployment had nearly doubled since the start of the lockdown

6 August – The city centre in Preston which is facing a fresh lockdown

  • 6 August: the city centre of Preston, which was facing a fresh lockdown within days after local coronavirus infections surged. Cases of the disease in the Lancashire city doubled in a week, with Preston set to follow in the footsteps of nearby east Lancashire, Greater Manchester and parts of West Yorkshire by reintroducing stringent lockdown rules

“A woman got in touch to say that it was her 92-year-old grandfather in this photograph. She explained that I’d captured him on his first venture outside the house since lockdown and that everyone had been worried about him. The man and his family all liked the picture so we hurriedly made her a set of prints which she gave to her grandad for his 93rd birthday a few days later.”

7 October – Manchester city centre as Greater Manchester and the north west region waits to hear if the government will impose tighter coronavirus restrictions

  • 7 October: Manchester city centre as Greater Manchester and the north west region waited to hear if the government would impose tighter coronavirus restrictions to tackle the city’s Covid-19 infection rate, which had risen above 500 per 100,000 of the population

13 October – Students queueing to get in to Soho Bar in Liverpool on the last night out before the city formally enters the government’s newly imposed tier 3 restrictions

12 November – A man wearing a union flag face mask in Oldham, Greater Manchester

  • 12 November: a man wearing a union flag face mask in Oldham, Greater Manchester, on the day the Office for National Statistics announced that Britain’s economy grew at a record quarterly rate of more than 15% as lockdown restrictions were eased in the summer, but the recovery was losing momentum even before new curbs came in. Data from the ONS showed that national output expanded by just 1.1% in September – the last month before fresh action was taken to limit the spread of Covid-19.

16 November – The infamous concrete wall in Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester, designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando and opened in 2002. The structure has since been dubbed the Berlin Wall by many Mancunians and is due to be demolished starting this week. It has been daubed with the inscription ‘The North is not a petri dish’ by local graffiti artist Frankie Stocks

  • 16 November: the infamous concrete wall in Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester, designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando and opened in 2002. The structure, known as the Berlin Wall by many Mancunians, was demolished later that month. It was daubed with the inscription “The north is not a Petri dish” by a local graffiti artist, Frankie Stocks

17 November – Residents in Gipsyville, the ward with the highest Covid-19 infection rate in Hull

  • 17 November: residents in Gipsyville, the ward with the highest Covid-19 infection rate in Hull, where one in four children were absent from school due to a rapid rise in coronavirus cases. Headteachers in the city warned of a “major threat” to public services unless schools were allowed to partially close

1 December – Ashton-under-Lyne in Tameside, the area with the highest total number of Covid-related deaths in England

2 December – A vitally empty Tate Liverpool as museums and galleries are among venues allowed to reopen as the second national lockdown finishes and the city returns to the government’s Tier 2 coronavirus restrictions.


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