Voices: Where were you on 20 May 2020?

·6-min read

The writer Michael Rosen couldn’t be at the alleged Downing Street garden party on 20 May, 2020 – he was unconscious after contracting Covid. “Number 10 party,” he wrote. “Damn, I missed it. I was in a coma. Just my luck.”

Dr Samantha Haley-Horsfall couldn’t attend, either. She was working in an NHS hospital and in the middle of spending nine weeks living in a hotel, away from her family. “During this time I didnt see my husband, our child, my parents or any family or friend,” she wrote. I did this so I could give everything on Covid wards. It broke me. I have PTSD now.”

She was, she added, trying to save lives. “I baked in these suits. I wept. I was isolated. We rationed PPE. We watched people die. I developed PTSD. We couldn’t even get a second phone line for the ward. And they partied??”

For my colleague, Harriet Hall, 20 May 2020 held intense grief – a world away from the chance to go to (what looks very much like) a lockdown-breaking gathering in the No 10 garden and “bring your own booze”.

“My grandmother was one of the most important people in my life,” she tweeted. “On 12 May 2020 she died alone in a care home. On 20 May, 8 of us gathered for her funeral. It was socially distant and there was no wake, as per the rules. I couldn’t hold my mother’s hand as she said goodbye to hers.”

A month before, in April, Ian Smart had buried his wife. “My wife was buried on 14th April 2020,” he said. “I had to tell very close friends they couldn’t come. Had to tell those who did come they couldn’t have a drink, even in the garden. 5 weeks later Boris had a party.”

And, on 20 May 2020, Jenni Lang’s younger brother died. “My baby brother was in ICU,” she wrote. “He died on 23rd May. We couldn’t sit with him until they switched off his life support. My dad and I watched him take his last breaths over FaceTime.”

On the date that shall now be forever etched in public consciousness, there had been 166 reported deaths in hospitals in England: 143 (86 per cent) of those had occurred in the week leading up to the alleged Downing Street bash. Indoor gatherings were strictly forbidden.

The Met Police even put out this tweet, reminding people that while they could (and should) get out in the sunshine – in eerily-similar wording to the leaked email penned by Boris Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, to over 100 employees in Downing Street – they must #StayAlert: “You can relax, have a picnic, exercise or play sport, as long as you are: on your own, with people you live with, just you and one other person.”

Elderly people living alone or in care homes, NHS staff, new mothers, single people without support networks, parents of young children, university students, teenagers, people who lost jobs or went out of business, the sick and the dying and the sad – we all suffered, alongside countless others.

New mother Fadah Jassem shared this photo of herself with her baby strapped to her chest: “On that day in May 2020 I was giving my son a ‘walk’ in the garden, thinking about all those mothers who did not have outdoor space and were scared of leaving the house with their babies,” she wrote.

If these kinds of heartfelt examples feel endless, that’s because they are; because we all made sacrifices. Even the so-called “small” losses felt huge to those who experienced them, and reflecting on them now serves only to highlight the stark hypocrisy of the government’s apparent actions.

Compare and contrast, if you will, the email to 100 employees telling them that after an “incredibly busy period” it would be nice to “make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks”, to the real-life May 2020 birthday “celebrations” of my colleague, Rupert Hawksley.

“On 11 May, I was living with my elderly parents – and my sister and her husband did me a cocktail-making Zoom drinks, just the five of us,” he tells me. “Which is not a sad story at all, and is quite sweet really – but not exactly a classic 32nd birthday party that I could invite 100 people to, is it?”

“We all did it – we all followed the rules,” he adds. “And we were obsessed with the rules in my family: my sister came to stay when households were allowed to mix but you had to stay two metres apart, and no joke, my mum had a tape measure out and laid up the table two metres apart and made my sister sit by the open window. That’s how seriously we took the guidelines.”

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My own experience of that period is similar: not as terrible as many people had it, but certainly no (cheese and wine-fuelled) picnic. No, I didn’t lose a loved one; I didn’t have to face the horror of socially-distancing at a funeral or say goodbye on Zoom.

But I felt the crushing weight of that lockdown, just as we all felt it: suddenly single for the first time in 20 years, self-isolating with my ex; trying to keep my spirits high while parenting two young children, working and homeschooling and weeping silently in the spare room. I stopped eating, barely slept; felt lonely to the point of it being a physical pain. It was the worst and the darkest period of my life to date – I nearly broke in two.

The Met Police has now put out a statement saying that the force is “aware of widespread reporting relating to alleged breaches of the Health Protection Regulations at Downing Street on 20 May 2020, and is in contact with the Cabinet Office.”

Sue Gray, the top civil servant tasked with leading an inquiry into the alleged Christmas parties at Downing Street, will likely now widen her investigations to the alleged gathering on 20 May 2020 – good. We’ll have to wait and see exactly who will be partying when she returns her report.

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