On 20 May 2020, the Metropolitan Police issued a statement on social media which summed up the conditions in the country. ‘Have you been enjoying the hottest day of the year so far?’ it asked. ‘You can relax, have a picnic, exercise or play sport, as long as you are: on your own, with people you live with or just you and one other person.’ To do otherwise, it didn’t have to say, would be a criminal offence.
In 10 Downing Street, however, Boris Johnson’s principal private secretary sent out a very different message to more than 100 staff members. ‘Make the most of the lovely weather,’ it said, and ‘bring your own booze’ for a party in the back garden. The Prime Minister has now admitted that he attended the party for 25 minutes — doing what he had instructed the police to arrest others for. His somewhat improbable excuse is he believed it to be a work meeting.
It is true that his staff had been working incredibly hard at a time of national emergency; they needed a break. So did he — Johnson had, after all, recently returned to work after nearly dying of Covid. He may even argue that his staff were seeing each other most days so it wasn’t the same as mixing with strangers. A drink in the back garden posed no conceivable risk. At the time, there was almost no Covid in London and it was by then well-established that the virus doesn’t spread much outside.
None of these excuses will hold up. The revelation of the party he hosted is politically devastating. He had not allowed others to exercise their judgment and do what he and his staff were doing. Those who fell foul of the rules outside of the No. 10 garden faced fines (2,000 were taken through Westminster Magistrates’ Court alone).
Ann Mitchell, a Bletchley Park codebreaker, was buried that day with just five people allowed at her funeral. Weddings were being postponed and cancelled, retail and hospitality remained shut. On 20 May, there was no bubble system: single people were still legally required to stay inside alone, and only allowed to see one person outside as long as they stayed two metres apart.
Lockdown should have ended by then or, at the very least, been downgraded to advice, so police would not end up raiding children’s birthday parties or (as happened that day) going after bathers on Portobello beach. But the laws stayed in place for almost everyone — except for the rule-makers themselves.
The pettiness and inhumanity of the lockdowns have been covered here before. The dying hospital patients unable to see family. The care-home residents deprived of social contact for months on end. The police officers sent out to reprimand and fine people for sunbathing or just sitting on a park bench. It’s one thing to close bars and cancel large events, but to legislate on social interactions between family and friends was a far more authoritarian and cruel act.
It is not going to be easy for the government to get out of trouble for the 20 May gathering in the Downing Street garden — or the various other parties Sue Gray has now been charged with investigating as part of the No. 10 inquiry. The Prime Minister keeps telling his critics that they should wait for the outcome of that inquiry, but that is hardly necessary given that he has himself now admitted that he was there. Trust in the government has been badly tarnished, its Covid messaging undermined. It could make some amends by calling for an amnesty and a pardon for all those who were convicted of breaching lockdown restrictions in 2020 and last year. Fines should be cancelled, criminal records erased.
As for the current restrictions, ‘Plan B’ is no longer justified. The work-from-home diktats and vaccine passports were brought in at a time when it was feared that the Omicron variant could be just as dangerous as Delta. We now know this not to be the case. The masks-in-schools mandate, which so clearly impedes learning, has almost no evidential support. It is time for all these orders to be rescinded.
In the face of so many errors, the Conservatives have seen their popularity slide in the polls. Some of Johnson’s once strongest supporters in parliament are asking whether he is really fit to lead them into the next election. His approval rating is almost as low as Theresa May’s in her final days. One poll finds a majority saying that the hypocrisy is just too much and that he should resign now.
To his credit, Johnson refused to impose another lockdown this winter, despite intense pressure. It now seems as if the virus is receding fast, thanks in no small part to his booster programme. There is a success story to be told, if he has the wit to move quickly and produce a coherent agenda for pulling Britain out of the crisis. But he owes an apology, too, to those who were heavily fined for offences of the kind to which he has now admitted. It is also time to admit that, while Covid demanded that we reduce social interactions, it was wrong to try to micromanage our lives through criminal sanctions. As the past weeks have shown in England, people are quite capable of hunkering down and being careful without being ordered to do so.
Covid-19 was always going to cause huge social damage along with its death toll — but a legally mandated lockdown that dragged on for too long made matters far worse. The Prime Minister should say that it was an error which must never be repeated in a future pandemic.