As I type this, feeling close to tears, not one single minister has been willing to publicly defend – or even describe – the government’s position on that party. Why? Because it is indefensible. No nuance, no shade. As black and white as life and death itself. If any elected representative was present at such a tawdry party, they should resign. They know it; we know it. Only the grubbiest travesty of “public service” would prevent them from doing the right thing. Although I note that as of this afternoon, Boris Johnson and his ministers were continuing to insist that no such party had taken place.
“The top priority is making sure lives are saved,” Matt Hancock (ever one to make personal capital from a global pandemic) said on the morning news. Speaking to ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Hancock said he couldn’t possibly comment on the apparent rule-breaking because he had been rather busy at the time saving lives. Sorrywhatpardon? Yes – yes – this is the same Matt Hancock who saw fit to kiss his aide Gina Coladangelo in the middle of the afternoon in the Department of Health when he was meant to be focusing on pandemic management. It’s enough to make a doctor such as myself retch.
So let me remind you what we were doing in the NHS while members of the Downing Street elite seemingly took part in the revelry, or now refuse to condemn the revelry of others. On 18 December, there was palpable desperation in hospital corridors. We were smack in the middle of the most godawful rerun of Covid’s first wave. I use the word godawful deliberately. Pandemic casualties were flooding wards and ICUs. Patients suffocated as we scrambled to find iPads to connect them to their families. Some died because we had to ration ventilators. It was field medicine of the most brutal kind.
On 18 December, then, as we are told that members of government and advisers nibbled cheese and quaffed champers, my colleagues and I were palliating the symptoms of those too frail and weak to stand a chance of surviving Covid: older people, often, or those who were immunosuppressed. You know, those “expendable” members of the herd. Frequently, all we could do was give morphine to take away the terror of fighting for air. There is no sensation more frightening than being unable to breathe.
It was godawful in part because we had been here before. While Downing Street apparently partied, we were witnessing this horror for a second time. Rather than listen to his scientific advisers, who had long warned of the need for winter restrictions, Boris Johnson couldn’t resist the cheap populism of being the man who “saved” Christmas – a pound-shop messiah who placed self-promotion above saving lives. I remember thinking at the time: how monstrously cavalier. On 18 December, the Covid death toll stood at 68,442. By 19 February, it had reached 121,867. More than 50,000 deaths from Covid in two months alone – the unspeakable price of a vanity government.
But the most heartbreaking aspect of all this was also paradoxically positive. Every day I witnessed the staggering grace and dignity of the British public. The selflessness of loved ones who willingly obeyed the rules, though it cost them everything. Who didn’t visit their wives, husbands or parents in hospital. Who chose to stay at home so as not to imperil others. Who missed the chance to say goodbye. Who joined funerals by Zoom, then grieved in isolation.
On one occasion, I had to beg, beseech and grovel to my seniors to persuade them to permit a teenage boy to join his mother in saying goodbye to his father, while he died on my watch from Covid. Can you imagine that? A disease so deadly – and spreading so freely – it forced hospitals to impose such draconian restrictions? On that occasion, I was allowed to admit both the boy and his mother. They were granted an hour at the bedside of the dying man they adored. But how many others were not?
The truth is that, though Johnson has chortled and wisecracked his way through this pandemic, the public has always known that personal sacrifice is an act of radical kindness, and that individual forbearance saves lives. We have restrained ourselves willingly because, quite simply, we care about each other. In contrast, if what we have heard of this government’s partying, joking, complacency and rule-breaking is true, it sticks two fingers up to basic human decency. They should hang their heads in shame.
Rachel Clarke is a palliative care doctor and the author of Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic.