Brexit, Coronavirus, insurrection – the first five months of the year were packed with concerning developments on many fronts

As Big Ben chimed in the first minute of 2021, the streets of Whitehall beneath the great Elizabeth Tower lay empty. There were no crowds on the banks of the River Thames and the handful of revellers who did try to gain access to see the firework display were turned away by police. Across the UK, the story was the same. From Land’s End to John O’Groats, from St David’s to Cromer pier, the city squares, bars, clubs, pubs and restaurants lay dark.

With 964 deaths and 55,892 Coronavirus cases recorded on 31 December alone, most were in no mood to party anyway. 

The month before, the Prime Minister had announced a four-week lockdown that would ‘save Christmas’ – but the virus hadn’t received the memo. Since the emergence of the first cases of Coronavirus 11 months previously, 73,512 Britons – almost twice the number of civilians killed in the Second World War – had died. Tens of thousands had been hospitalised. 2.5 million had contracted the illness and many millions more had suffered the torment of being separated from loved ones.

2020 had seen life and death, present and future, put on hold. 

It had been a miserable year for Boris Johnson too. He marked the start of 2020 with a picture of himself giving a thumbs up, promising: “This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain!” It had been anything but. He had been tasked with steering the nation through the greatest crisis of our age and contracted COVID-19. 

Despite all of that, he tried, in a New Year’s Eve message, to strike an upbeat note and give 2020 a positive spin: 2020 had been a year in which we “rediscovered the spirit of togetherness of community,” by banging “saucepans to celebrate the courage and self-sacrifice of our NHS”. Better still, Brexit had finally been done because 31 December 2020 was not just the end of the year – it also marked the conclusion of the ‘transition period’ and the UK was now firmly out of the EU. “This is an amazing moment for this country; we have our freedom in our hands,” Johnson told us.

So how did that amazing moment pan out?


January

January saw the daily rate of Coronavirus infections shoot up and hospitalisations with it. On 4 January, Boris Johnson declared a further full lockdown in England. But it was all too little too late. In that single bleak winter month, 32,033 people died.

On 26 January, the total death toll passed 100,000. A day later, 1,725 lives were lost in the single deadliest 24 hours of the pandemic. Johnson said that he was “deeply sorry”.

With cumulative infection rates almost twice as high as Spain and Germany, and well above figures in France and Italy, the apology must have come as cold comfort to the bereaved. 

Even so, few back then seemed willing to place the blame with Downing Street. Perhaps the country was too busy riding the waves of infection to have time to apportion it. Perhaps a compliant media encouraged us not to. Or perhaps it was because, for once, there was a glimmer of hope: the new vaccines, first administered in early December, seemed to offer a path out of the crisis. And anyway, for all of Britain’s woes, at least we were not America.

Since losing the 2020 US Presidential Election back in November, Donald Trump was spending his last months in office setting fire to US democracy. As the day of his eviction loomed, he upped the ante. 

On 5 January, pro-Trump demonstrators converged on Washington D.C. hoping to disrupt the Joint Sessions of Congress that would see Joe Biden formally anointed as the 46th President of the United States. With tensions growing, Facebook suspended Trump’s account – in much the same way that a door might be nudged shut, shortly after a horse on a bath-load of snakebite has bolted.

At midday on 6 January, Trump appeared to raucous cheers before a crowd that had been summoned to a park that sits to the south of the White House. From behind a sheet of bullet-proof glass, the outgoing President delivered a paranoid speech. Having lambasted the assembled “fake news media”, he told his supporters to “fight like hell” and that his election victory had been “stolen by bold and radical left Democrats”. He added: “You will never take our country back with weakness. You have to show strength.” 

Even before he had finished speaking, a 300-strong crowd, including QAnon conspiracy theorists and Proud Boys, had begun to converge on Capitol Hill. Mock gallows were erected. Soon after that, the mob descended on the building in what amounted to an attempted coup. In the chaos that followed, the office of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, was ransacked. Terrified Government employees barricaded themselves in conference rooms. Art was looted from the walls of the Capitol. American democracy wobbled. 

Under pressure to condemn the rioters, Trump finally took to Twitter at 3.25 pm and instructed: “No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order – respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue.” But it was not enough and was probably not intended to be. 

In the ensuing violence, 138 police officers were injured and 15 were hospitalised. Hundreds of pro-Trump demonstrators were injured and worse. Five people died shortly before, during or following the event. One was Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick, who suffered a stroke. Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran, was shot dead by police as she attempted to break through a window. Another Trump supporter, Rosanne Boyland, was crushed to death while trying to get through police lines. 

Trump, meanwhile, tweeted away from the safety of the Oval Office. As the world looked on in horror, it was he – at 6.25 pm – who told the rioters to stand down and go home “with love and peace” and that they should “remember this day forever!” Two days later, Twitter permanently suspended his account. 

Two weeks after that, Trump left the White House and Joe Biden was sworn in as President.  


FEBRUARY

As February arrived, there were signs that the second Coronavirus wave had peaked. The UK’s vaccine roll-out was steaming ahead. As of 1 February, 9,616,745 Britons had received their first doses. By 28 February, the figure had more than doubled to 20,275,451. But, of course, the pandemic was still very far from over.

That was brought home when, on 2 February, Captain Sir Tom Moore, symbolic to many of the fortitude of ordinary people in the face of the virus, died aged 100 of COVID-19.

One sign that things might be returning to normal was the recognition of ‘other’ news on the rolling bulletins. On 19 February, it was announced that Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle would not be returning to official duties and that they had effectively resigned from the Royal Family.

While people found something new to talk about, the daily Coronavirus figures improved. On 22 February, Johnson appeared before the Commons to give a statement on the roadmap towards easing restrictions in England. “There is… no credible route to a Zero COVID Britain or indeed a Zero COVID World,” Johnson said. “We cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental wellbeing, and the life chances of our children… it is… crucial that this roadmap should be cautious but also irreversible.”

Four days later, the life chances of one young British woman were terminated by the same Government. On 26 February, the Supreme Court ruled that Shamima Begum – the 21 year-old ‘ISIS’ bride who had, as a 15-year-old girl, been groomed and radicalised online and lured out to Syria – would not be allowed to travel to the UK to appeal the decision to strip her of her British citizenship.

“Arbitrary deprivation of nationality” is prohibited under Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but the UK Government had for two years argued that, as Begum was of Bangladeshi heritage, she could claim citizenship of that country and that the UK could simply wash its hands of her. This was despite Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh’s Foreign Affairs Minister, saying that Begum was not a citizen of his country and would be denied entry to the nation.

The idea that a British-born woman, convicted of no actual crime, who had lost three babies in a war zone, could be stripped of her nationality simply because of her heritage and gullibility, set a very worrying precedent indeed. 

Sajid Javid, the former Home Secretary, welcomed the ruling. A poll in the Sun newspaper found that 92.3% of readers believed that she should not be allowed back into the UK.


MARCH

As the Coronavirus winter turned to spring, Public Health England published data demonstrating that just one shot of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer jabs dramatically reduced the chances of hospitalisation with COVID-19.

Three days later, Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled a muted budget, as figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted that the UK economy would bounce back to its pre-pandemic growth by 2022. 

On 7 March, the much anticipated interview by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex with Oprah Winfrey was broadcast in which Prince Harry suggested that his brother and father were both “trapped within the system” of royal life. But it was his wife’s allegations that grabbed the headlines. Talking of the strain placed on her, Meghan Markle spoke compellingly of her “very clear” suicidal thoughts and recounted how one senior royal had been preoccupied with how “dark” her baby son Archie’s skin might be.

“I wouldn’t believe her if she read me a weather report,” Piers Morgan declared the following morning, in an on-air rant on Good Morning Britain. Challenged by his fellow presenter Alex Beresford as to why he “continued to trash” the Duchess of Sussex, Morgan later stormed off set and, following a record 41,000 Ofcom complaints about his behaviour, quit the show by “mutual agreement”.

Three days later, the remains of missing 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard were discovered in woods near Deal in Kent. Sarah had been walking home from a friend’s house in Clapham, London, on 3 March when she was kidnapped by serving Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens, who subsequently raped and murdered her before trying to dispose of her body, in the words of her mother, “as if she were rubbish”.

Couzens, an armed member of the Met’s parliamentary and diplomatic protection branch, had meticulously planned the kidnap and murder in advance. He had carried out a fake arrest on Sarah Everard under the pretence of enforcing Coronavirus restrictions.

The horrific event provoked a debate about violence against women and women’s safety. A series of vigils were held, including one on Clapham Common at which the Met Police arrested four people for breaching the Coronavirus Act 2020. Its insensitive approach was broadly condemned amid a growing climate of fear and mistrust of the police by women. The police did little to temper that anxiety.  

Patsy Stevenson, whose heavy-handed arrest at Clapham Common became a defining image of 2021, was later to complain that some 50 police officers had subsequently ‘liked’ her Tinder profile in what appeared to be a deliberate act of intimidation. 

Later in the year, Philip Allott, newly-elected North Yorkshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, further undermined trust in the force when he told BBC Radio York that women should educate themselves about police powers and know “when they can be arrested and when they can’t be arrested”. He later resigned, but his remarks underlined the prevailing misogyny of a culture that obviously believes that women’s safety is a matter for women.

Further questions were asked about police culture and vetting later in the year when two serving Met Police officers, Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis, were sentenced to two years and nine months in prison for taking “dehumanising” photographs of two murdered sisters, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, and sharing them on a WhatsApp group of other officers.

23 March was a day of “national reflection” for the 126,172 people who had now died in the UK since the start of the first Coronavirus lockdown one year previously. At midday, a minute’s silence was held for the victims and Boris Johnson promised a “fitting and permanent memorial to the loved ones we have lost” when the time was right.

A little over a year earlier, on 19 February 2020, Lord Daniel Hannan, the High Priest of Brexit, had tweeted: “The Coronavirus isn’t going to kill you. It really isn’t.” But, as with his other predictions about so much else, he was wrong. By 27 March 2021, the total death toll in the UK had exceeded 150,000 people.

As the month ended, violence erupted in Northern Ireland. The roots of the unrest were complicated, but were driven forward over continuing anger about the Northern Ireland Protocol. It was an issue that was to rumble on for the rest of the year. 


APRIL

On 9 April, Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Philip, Britain’s stalwart consort to the Queen, had died at Windsor Castle. Three days later, the Coronavirus lockdown was eased and non-essential shops and pub gardens re-opened.

As life returned to something akin to normality, so too did the old politics.

For months, there had been questions asked about Boris Johnson’s lavish redecoration of his Downing Street flat and bigger questions over who had paid for it. On 28 April, the Prime Minister was said to be indignant as the independent political donations watchdog – the Electoral Commission – declared its intention to investigate the so-called ‘Cash for Curtains’ scandal.

A week earlier, Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings had published a blog suggesting that the renovations had been. They were “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal,” he declared, and “almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended”.

The subsequent investigation into the matter – conducted by Lord Geidt, the Independent Advisor on Ministers’ Interests – found that, while Johnson had been “unwise” in carrying out the £80,000 refurbishments without first working out how he would pay for them, no rules had been broken. The news cycle moved on.


MAY

May brought the promise of a 1970s-style ‘cod war’ with France as French trawlers attempted to blockade Jersey following a dispute over post-Brexit territorial rights. As matters escalated, two Royal Navy vessels were dispatched to the area and, as French politicians suggested that Jersey’s electricity supply should be cut off, Jersey’s Foreign Minister Ian Gorst felt compelled to tell reporters that Jersey was “absolutely not” going to war with France.

That same day, 6 May, millions of voters in England, Wales and Scotland went to the polls in elections which saw Labour hold the Welsh Senedd; the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Greens make gains in Scotland; and Labour’s London Mayor Sadiq Khan win a second term in the capital. Resting actor Laurence Fox, who had challenged Khan for the job, lost his £10,000 deposit.

In Hartlepool, there was good news for the Conservatives as a by-election, held following the resignation of MP Mike Hill, saw the seat swing from Labour. Jill Mortimer was elected as the constituency’s Conservative MP – the first Tory win since its creation in 1974.

But Conservative joy was short-lived. As the country edged towards a promised ‘Freedom Day’ on 19 July, the new Delta variant of the Coronavirus was emerging and threatening to ruin the party.

The virus may have momentarily drifted from the headlines but, much like Dominic Cummings, it clearly had no intention of disappearing altogether.

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