OPINION - Partygate has revealed disturbing trends of baffling inequality, confusion, and secrecy over lockdown fines

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Boris and Carrie Johnson have tboth been given a lockdown fine  (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Archive)
Boris and Carrie Johnson have tboth been given a lockdown fine (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Archive)

When the Met Police drew a line under its Partygate probe by announcing 126 Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) have been issued and the investigation is over, Downing Street no doubt wished the saga was near to an end.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson already has a £50 fine on his record over his 2020 birthday party in the Cabinet Office, but has apparently escaped censure for events he attended including the notorious ‘Bring Your Own Booze’ gathering in the Number 10 garden.

Yet other government staffers have apparently been fined for those same events, prompting a chorus of growing complaints that junior workers have been punished while those at the top have largely been let off the hook.

In this mess, the government has – inadvertently – shone a light on the use of lockdown laws throughout the pandemic on the general public, and disturbing trends that have emerged: uneven decision-making, baffling inequality, confusion, and secrecy.

The lockdown laws were the most extreme curbs that have been placed on freedoms in this country since the Second World War, and it was Boris Johnson’s government that decided fines, penalties, and prosecutions would be needed to keep the public in line.

Yet more than two years on, it is still hard to understand how and why the laws have sometimes been applied, in Downing Street and beyond. Doyin Adeyemi, a 27-year-old new mother from Erith, cradled her six-week-old baby as she appeared at Westminster magistrates court earlier this year, over a gathering she was at in February 2021.

She had been at the property to “pick up my stuff”, she insisted, and happened upon a birthday party that was taking place.

Fuelling her sense of injustice was the fact that Met Police officers issued fines to four people, including her, but decided two others who were at the gathering could go free.

“Why did I get a fine but not them?”, she complained, but was swiftly shut down by the District Judge who had a more clear-cut interpretation of the law: “You need to decide whether or not in that house you were with more than two people – yes? Then I will take that as a guilty plea.”

No consideration of a possible ‘reasonable excuse’ for her attendance, no ifs, no buts, and a £150 fine.

In the Partygate probe, FPNs have been issued to a total of 83 people – a staggering amount of law-breaking in the building where the rules were invented, but a surprisingly low number of fines considering the Met decided eight separate gatherings were essentially illegal.

Now that detectives have put down their notebooks, attention will shift to senior civil servant Sue Gray’s long-awaited Partygate report which may be published next week.

But as illuminating as it might be, it’s unlikely to decipher why the Met took the decisions to fine – and not fine – when it did.

When staff at the Notting Hill Fish + Meat Shop were called in by their boss for a crisis meeting in last January’s lockdown, police officers spied the gathering through a window and went to investigate.

Nine FPNs were handed out to those present at the shop owner’s flat, while pleas that this was a work meeting they had been ordered to attend were batted away when the incident came up in court.

In the information vacuum created by the Met, speculation is now rife that the PM may have escaped more fines because Number 10 is his home and workplace. But if true, that is certainly not an exemption others had the benefit of.

For some police officers, it’s clear that when it came to lockdown, ‘rules were rules’ and they had to be applied unyieldingly. Nicola Patterson, 50, had five people at her Lewisham home last January for a wake after her dog died.

“I am truly sorry but I really didn’t know that I wasn’t allowed people in my flat”, she told magistrates, but it did not spare her from a conviction and £220 fine.

Another mystery from the Met’s conclusions is that no-one within Downing Street has been penalised for “holding” a party, which may have exposed them to a £10,000 fine.

Everyone has been fined for merely “participating” in the illegal parties. It is well-known that top civil servant Martin Reynolds sent round the “bring your own booze” invite in May 2020, but that was before the five-figure ‘super-fines’ had been invented.

Questions remain unresolved as to whether anyone organised the other Downing Street parties, or if they simply sprang up spontaneously. Meanwhile in the courts, Enfield resident Torino Reid was hit with London’s biggest single Covid fine of £14,000 for ‘holding’ a disco party in his shed for his niece’s birthday.

Unsurprisingly, he has struggled to pay the bill and could now face further sanctions.

University student Ruben Alfredo, 19, was handed a £10,000 fine for a birthday party last May which got “out of hand”, he told the court. From £50 fines up to life-changing penalties for lockdown breaches, offenders have been given just 28 days to pay up or face the possibility of more fines, bailiffs, and even arrest and prison.

Scotland Yard said it ruled out the possibility of fines increasing in size for repeat offenders in Downing Street, saying that would “not have been fair”.

That’s in contrast to people like Mayfair resident Marcus Oligarce, 30, who was fined £30,000 in March for three parties – when he was clearly dealt with more harshly by the court as a repeat offender.

In any event, fairness has been in short supply when it comes to Covid laws. In the early stages of the pandemic, the Coronavirus Act 2020 was grievously misused by police forces around the country, and there was a humiliating admission that every single prosecution brought under that law was wrong.

Police forces faced stern criticism for misusing and misinterpreting powers under the Health Protection Regulations 2020 – which set out the laws for enforcing lockdown, mask-wearing, and closing down business.

But despite the “error rate” that was emerging, Attorney General Suella Braverman decided Covid prosecutions – for people who did not pay their FPNs - could be conducted through the notoriously opaque Single Justice Procedure.

For months in London, Westminster magistrates court convicted and sentenced defendants behind closed doors and in conditions of total secrecy, having forgotten to tell anyone that cases were happening.

When the courts finally began to share information, I dug into the legal papers and police evidence of Covid breaches, uncovering a bewildering lack of consistency and mystifying decision-making over the last two years, as well as obvious signs of miscarriages of justice. A 21-year-old Kingston man who was landed with a £10,000 party fine – that will take him a decade to pay off – was convicted after he had been written to by the police to say “case closed”.

A south London woman was issued with a FPN when she had walked to Borough Market for some food and drink.

A habitual beggar who twice refused to leave her normal spot in Tesco car park was fined £2,500 – a fine she may never come close to paying.

Police and those in government have steadfastly resisted calls to review the Covid laws and how they have been used.

They were rushed into existence, without a proper appeals process, and allowed to run their course.

If anything good is to come from the Downing Street saga, it will force MPs, ministers, and perhaps even the PM himself to look closely at the chaos and confusion that the Covid laws unleashed.

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