Voices: On 20 May we promised my grandmother we’d see her when the pandemic was over – we never did

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  • Boris Johnson
    Boris Johnson
    Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019
She cried and I tried to put her mind at rest (Jordan Tyldesley)
She cried and I tried to put her mind at rest (Jordan Tyldesley)

Last night, as we all know by now, ITV News revealed that Boris Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, had sent an email inviting more than a hundred No 10 staff to a “socially distanced drinks” during the height of the pandemic in May 2020. Reported to have been in attendance was none other than our own prime minister and his wife, Carrie Johnson, with some other 40 attendees.

I don’t need to remind everyone what the rules were at that time, but for the purpose of context, let’s remember that the official guidance forbade large gatherings – and people were only permitted to meet one other person from another household, outdoors, at a two metre distance. In fact, 55 minutes before this sun-fuelled knees-up allegedly began, cabinet minister Oliver Dowden ordered the nation not to meet. Five days later, Johnson said police should “intervene” to stop people having outdoor parties.

We all have our own memories of May 2020, but here is mine: the sun was indeed shining, as it had for some time. I FaceTimed my grandmother, Phyllis, so she could watch the children playing in the garden. She was at the lowest ebb of her life: locked up indoors, a widow living on her own – lonely and scared.

She cried and I tried to put her mind at rest by saying: “When this is all over, everything will be back to normal. The important thing is that we all remain safe and we’re all still here at the end of it!” But that didn’t happen. She died a short while later – and that dream never materialised. My story is one of many: a long line of people who sacrificed everything for the greater good of others.

When the leak emerged last night I burst into tears. I felt a heady mix of rage and hurt. How could they be so cruel and seemingly blind to the suffering going on around them? It is true what they say, a fish really does rot from the head down – and it is my view that Boris Johnson has to go. If he had any sort of honour about him, he would be packing his bags already. I don’t care what your political persuasion is – I think we can all agree that we deserve better than this.

I would like to think of myself as a patient and forgiving person. Boris Johnson being pictured hosting a virtual Christmas quiz doesn’t especially grind my gears, but this? This is beyond the pale.

It’s not just that it’s one rule for them and one rule for us, as has been said many times in recent weeks: it’s worse than that. It’s that they appear to deem themselves, their relationships and their lives as more important than ours. This government put life-altering measures in place and the way in which they seemingly flouted their own rules with such nonchalance is sickening. Only a certain type of person would be able to do this, one with nothing but an utter lack of respect for the general public.

For goodness sake, even children stuck to the rules without much complaining. The fact that grown adults were unable to go a few weeks without sharing nibbles and a bottle of fizz is embarrassing on their part. It is as if we are being ruled by defiant teenagers.

In the House of Commons, at the end of last year, the prime minister said: “I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures, and I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that the people setting the rules have not been following the rules […] I was also furious!”

The sheer shamelessness of these words in light of the recent news is astonishing. If the prime minister was indeed in attendance, his position is surely untenable.

I’m sure we’ll all be reminded within the coming weeks that the government worked very hard at that time and therefore in some way deserved to have a garden party, but it simply won’t wash. Everyone worked hard – arguably harder than they did.

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They convened in meetings and secured contracts? Wow. Many people put their lives on the line: day in, day out. Some stayed at home in misery, domestic violence rose dramatically during lockdown. People worked from home while endlessly trying to entertain – and educate – their bored and lonely children.

Public anger isn’t going to go away until a change is made – until someone takes responsibility for what feels an awful lot like deceit. I’m sure it will be Reynolds, but as long as Johnson remains in place, this will happen time and again. He is the problem – and his staff follow his lead.

From my experience in the workplace, when a manager acts with total impunity and entitlement, the staff do also. I think his work here is done – and we should all put this sorry chapter behind us.

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