OPINION - If another lockdown is needed, it’s hard to see how Boris Johnson has the moral authority to impose it

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·4-min read
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  • Boris Johnson
    Boris Johnson
    Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019
  • Dominic Cummings
    Dominic Cummings
    British political strategist who served as chief adviser to UK prime minister from July 2019 until Nov 2020
 (PA)
(PA)

The Government’s ability to control the movements and actions of the public in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic has surely hit rock bottom with new allegations of Downing Street parties in May 2020.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet colleagues went on TV night-after-night to plead with people to follow the tough rules they were imposing, to protect the NHS and return the country to a semblance of normality.

But behind the velvet glove of encouraging words has always been an iron fist of enforcement – hefty fines and criminal prosecutions for breaking the rules on large gatherings.

Police have taken people to task for throwing house parties when the rest of the country was in lockdown, prosecuted business owners for remaining open when told to close, and fined groups of people who ignored curbs on movement designed to halt the spread of the virus.

The Government’s rules certainly carried weight when the pandemic began, but its authority was badly damaged by the actions of Dominic Cummings and Matt Hancock. It continued to ebb away late last year with revelations of festive parties in December 2020 at the heart of government.

Johnson ordered an internal investigation to try to draw a line under the scandal, but those hopes have been firmly washed away by this week’s bombshell - one of the most senior civil servants in the government emailed 100 people with an invite to a ‘bring your own booze’ evening in the Number 10 Downing Street garden on May 20, 2020, when parties, gatherings, even social meetings of more than two people had been made illegal. The betrayal could hardly be more stark.

Grieving relatives missed the funerals of their loved ones, weddings were postponed, the elderly lived out their final days in virtual isolation – all for the greater good of beating Covid. It is hardly surprising there is palpable anger at what may have been going on within Government.

Almost two years on, it’s easy to forget just how restricted our lives were in spring 2020: only leave the house when you have a “reasonable excuse”, don’t meet in groups of more than two people, exercise outside just once a day.

Many people were filled with doubts about just what was allowed: Can we still car-share to work? Are visits to care homes going to land us in trouble? Is the ‘essential travel’ rule limited by geography?

Court documents revealed what behaviour was deemed so bad as to be criminal. Four people were convicted and fined more than £2,000 for drinking beers during warm weather as they sat together in a park in west London, just a few weeks before the alleged Downing Street garden party.

A Croydon man faced magistrates for inviting people to his home in April 2020, with the resulting fines to be taken from his benefits. A Romford man was prosecuted for “loitering and sunbathing while drinking alcohol” – apparently on his own – while sat in a Barking park.

Bosses at a City of London firm were given a police warning for setting up a home gym for employees on its balcony, after pleading with officers that it was to help with mental wellbeing. Having a drink after work seemed acceptable to one group of office workers, who narrowly avoided being prosecuted for misunderstanding the ‘bubble’ system.

It is the threat of criminal sanctions for rule-breakers - with fines of more than £10,000 - that makes the government’s current position so untenable. If a member of the public’s lockdown garden party warranted the full force of the law, why shouldn’t the same rule apply to Downing Street?

Paymaster General Michael Ellis MP told Parliament today that “disciplinary action” would follow if the internal investigation found anyone had broken the rules. But there is an almost overwhelming argument that police intervention is now warranted.

Scotland Yard has so far held the line that Covid breaches are only acted on if they are caught at the time, but that policy – presumably brought in for pragmatic reasons to limit the scope of its pandemic duties – is now being tested to breaking point by the proliferation of potential evidence from within Government.

History will show a litany of incidents – Hancock, Cummings, PM Johnson maskless at a hospital, the Tory HQ Christmas drinks, the Downing Street garden party – which have rocked the government’s authority over the course of this pandemic.

If another Covid lockdown is needed, it’s hard to see how the cabinet has the moral authority to impose it. The PM must now encourage a full police investigation of the Downing Street parties, regardless of who might end up in the firing line.

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