COVID Hindsight& the Lockdown Parties
Sascha Lavin considers the Downing Street parties in context – without the reassurance of the COVID vaccine programme
Sue Gray’s long-awaited and heavily-rewritten report has criticised the “failures of leadership and judgement” in Downing Street that allowed numerous lockdown parties to be held on the estate and elsewhere in Whitehall.
However, even those carefully-chosen words aren’t strong enough when the Prime Minister’s pandemic partying is put into context. ‘Partygate’ wasn’t just inconsiderate and tone deaf, it was dangerous.
When 90-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive a COVID-19 jab outside of a clinical trial on 8 December 2020, seven parties within the scope of Gray’s investigation had already been held – seven potential Government-sponsored super-spreader events.
We don’t know if anyone caught the virus from a fellow reveller but, if they did, they could have spread it to an unvaccinated care home worker on the bus, to their unvaccinated asthma-suffering friend, or to their unvaccinated granny – not a single person in the UK at the time of the ninth party had received a single vaccine dose.
On 15 May 2020, the Prime Minister, his wife and 17 members of staff guzzled wine and cheese in the Downing Street garden. Then, five days later, Downing Street staff were invited to “bring your own booze” for another shindig on the lawn. Almost a month later, birthday-boy Boris was “ambushed with a cake”, twice: once by staff and again later that day by family and friends. In November there was a party at Johnson’s Downing Street flat, drinks at the Treasury and a “crowded” farewell celebration for aide Cleo Watson.
And that’s not even half of the parties.
Fast-forward to the final parties – that we know of.
On 16 April 2021, there were two boozy leaving-dos for staff in Downing Street, which merged in the now notorious garden. At that time, less than half the population had received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and only 14% of people in the UK were double vaccinated.
It is therefore likely that at least one in three attendees were unvaccinated, since under-40s were not yet eligible for their COVID jab and more than a third of civil servants fall into that age bracket.
And so, 11 months after the first party and on the brink of a mass vaccine roll-out, the Government was still sanctioning what had the potential to be super-spreader events.
While the Government celebrates the success of the vaccine programme, it is easy to dismiss the anxiety that pervaded an unprotected population. It was a daily torment not knowing whether elderly or vulnerable relatives had avoided the disease and – if they did catch it – if it would put them in hospital.
Vaccines and time have provided the comfort of hindsight – but it wasn’t always like this. And while people suffered and sacrificed, Downing Street let the fun flow.
The run-up to Christmas 2020 was a particularly busy time for the Prime Minister and his rule-breaking staff: between 14 and 18 December, there was a party every day.
It was also a particularly busy time for funeral directors: 2,422 people had died from COVID during Downing Street’s five days of Christmas celebrations.
If the deceased were to be buried in England, it was likely that their loved-ones were faced with the painful task of selecting who was allowed to mourn, as ‘tier 4’ restrictions across much of the country limited funeral attendance to 30.
And, all the while, NHS hospitals across the UK warned of becoming overwhelmed as infection rates spiked. Dr Sonia Adesara, a London-based A&E doctor, told BBC Breakfast 11 days after the Christmas parties: “We are working all-out in the NHS – doctors and nurses are having leave cancelled, they’re doing extra shifts, they’re working extra long hours but it’s an extremely serious situation.”
In the weeks leading up to Sue Gray’s much-anticipated conclusions, Johnson has responded to cross-party calls for his resignation with his signature smirk, as if to say ‘none of this really matters’. Much like how his Government gave contracts to associates and supporters of the Conservative Party for COVID contracts, it all appears to be a game to the Prime Minister.
Even if the 1922 Committee ousts the Prime Minister, he will still not have lost. The people who suffered during the Coronavirus pandemic are those who lost loved ones and, by following the rules, couldn’t say their final goodbyes in person. Instead, Boris Johnson encouraged friends and staff to bend the rules for themselves as they partied and profited through these bleak times.
This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.