They established and deployed several types of measures that proved to be somewhat effective, and that were ironically later reactivated by other governments in subsequent epidemics, even though with less efficacy.
Perhaps the greatest influence of a microbial agent over a governmental public health policy comes from the cholera pandemics in the 19th century. Historians commonly agree on their major role in encouraging and enabling the British sanitary movement. Conceptualized in the 1830s and deployed until World War 1, this movement was largely carried out by Edwin Chadwick, a former barrister who drove the New Poor Law (1834). Thereafter, he carried out highly detailed studies of the health of the English people. His findings were published in a document known as the Sanitary Report (1842). It described the poor level of population health in England, and how it had been deteriorated by the industrial and urban transitions (in part through cholera outbreaks). Its psychological impact on the public was so great that it gave Chadwick sufficient political momentum to push for another set of legislative actions against filth across the country. These acts increased the power of the state to deal with microbes and diseases, even if germs had not been formerly identified and even if theories about diseases were mostly false. From that point on, many infrastructural aspects of English towns and cities changed, the country became cleaner and health indicators such as infant mortality and even life expectancy continuously improved for decades after.
Covid-19: a turning point in public health policy
This brings us to the current period. Will the Covid-19 pandemic be remembered by historians as pivotal in the way governments manage public health? In the short term, the answer can easily be positive. States have already heightened their level of leadership over population health since the beginning of the crisis.