Why the Tories broke the Covid rules

Picture of a staring-eyed, open-mouthed Boris Johnson with wild hair, wearing a blue Conservative Party rosette with his name and a slogan on it, with a pale blue tie over a white shirt and a dark grey jacket over that.
Boris Johnson

This past two weeks or more, the news here has been dominated by revelations about the behaviour of Boris Johnson and his friends during the two lockdowns in Spring 2020 and Winter 2021 (January to March), the periods of the Covid-19 pandemic where deaths were at their highest in the UK. While the general public was required to stay in their homes except for exercise, work and caring duties and one or two other essential activities, the government were holding after-work parties at 10 Downing Street with the usual trappings such as birthday cakes and wine. This has made a lot of people exceedingly angry, as the rules meant we could not meet with our friends for any social reasons and when we did meet (e.g. if we were delivering shopping to someone who was shielding or was isolating because of infection), there was no hugging or kissing and certainly no lingering for a coffee and a chat even if you hadn’t seen them for months or years. This news has turned people who voted for the Tories in the last election against them and united people who had disagreed over Brexit or the suitability or otherwise of Jeremy Corbyn to be PM: it shows the contempt the government had for the rest of us who were isolating ourselves to keep both ourselves, and the medically vulnerable who would have likely died if exposed to the virus, safe.

This week on Twitter, I came across people suggesting that the Tories broke the rules they imposed on everyone else because they thought them disproportionate. In the thread that followed, there were stories of vicars reprimanding a widow with dementia for singing at her husband’s funeral and making children sit apart from families, police using loudhailers to drive elderly people away from park benches and care home staff feeling like they were becoming prison wardens. But let’s not forget that the rules were not that onerous for most people who were not in institutions such as prisons and care homes. They were nowhere near as stringent as they were in other parts of Europe, where you had to carry a slip of paper to demonstrate that you had a reason to be outside, and children were confined to their homes for weeks (and if home was a flat, they were deprived of fresh air for the entire period). People could, and did, leave their homes for exercise, although they weren’t allowed to travel beyond their home area for that reason, but they could exercise however they liked, unlike in parts of Europe where cycling was banned to prevent accidents that could land people in hospitals that were busy treating Covid patients.

In addition, the stories of people being hustled on after stopping for a rest mid-exercise or filmed with drones while driving into the country were from the first couple of weeks of the first lockdown; the police were told to stop these excessive actions after that. On one of the occasions in question, the restrictions had just been eased somewhat but still excluded unnecessary gatherings beyond one’s immediate family. But the rules had been imposed because scientists were telling the government that our case and death rates were the same as Italy’s two weeks previously, and because when asked to reduce their social comings and goings the weekend of Mothers’ Day, people simply enjoyed themselves outside rather than inside, thronging parks and kiosks on a warmer-than-usual March day. They were not imposed on a whim, but after some resistance, after it became clear that something had to be done. There were people harmed by some aspects of the restrictions, including people in care homes and prisons and those reliant on care visits. But Boris Johnson was not in a care home, and nor were any of the other people who took part in these gatherings. Perhaps they could not be expected to stay home and see as few people as the rest of us could, but they were obliged to minimise non-essential contact with others, including social contact. A work meeting would have been conducted with social distancing and would have dispersed once completed, as I’m sure it did everywhere else. There was no excuse for them to end with anything resembling a social gathering or party.

It’s very clear that members of the government broke the rules because they believed they did not apply to them, whether because of their privileged backgrounds, being drunk on power or a combination of the two. We have even seen members of the Tory press tell us that the rules in fact did not apply to Crown estate land, including 10 Downing Street; in other words, the rules were written so as not to apply to those making them. Whether the gatherings were illegal or not, they were an insult to the sacrifices the general public made because they were keen to do the right thing and keep themselves and others safe. Where less powerful officials have been exposed as breaking these rules, they have been forced to resign, and in many countries such a display of contempt for the public at a time of crisis would be a resigning matter. Johnson is not being forced to do so because, I believe, nobody else in the Tory party wants the job as it would mean taking the blame for the consequences of Brexit and the impending rises in the cost of living. And if it is Johnson’s intention to involve us in any conflict in Ukraine, there could really not be a worse war leader despite his Churchillian delusions.

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