The mask of authority

All of us need to answer hard questions about the decisions we made during the pandemic


This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

What were you doing on 20 May 2020? I bet you’ve thought about it at some point since the news broke of the Downing Street garden party held then, and attended, notoriously, by the Prime Minister (he says for “just 25 minutes”). Those of us who keep a diary have been able to smugly lick a fingertip and leaf back to find out exactly what we were doing on that date. Which means I can now confidently report that on that fateful evening I was doing … nothing. In fact, my diary entry for that day reads only “Sick of lockdown”.

This was suffering forced upon a couple who had no choice in the matter

But there are many more people for whom 20 May 2020 was a far more important date. In the weeks following the revelations about the garden party — and as the public came to learn of many more non-compliant parties held at Downing Street during the same period — media outlets were filled with 20 May recollections.

I typically spend much of my time listening with my nine-month-old to phone-in radio, so I heard a lot of these stories. Most callers described boredom, loneliness, and fear. Others offered acutely painful accounts of the final lonely days of loved ones whose deaths went unwitnessed, or who were forced to speak their last words to family members via Zoom. The news that the Prime Minister was hosting a party as these people suffered was, of course, met with rage by these callers — and rightly so.

The Labour Party communications team — presumably keen to tighten the screws on a government in crisis — published one of these recollections in a tweet written in recognition of “the personal sacrifices made by millions of people during this pandemic”. “Jenny”, a nurse working for the NHS, described her experiences on 20th May:

I spent hours on the phone to a man who was in the hospital car park, utterly desperate to see his wife. He begged, wept, shouted to be let in, but we said no — for the greater good of everyone else. She died unexpectedly and alone, as the Government had a party.

This account really took my breath away. But not, I think, for the reasons the Labour communications team intended. I found it grotesque in every detail — the act, the recollection of the act, and Labour’s decision to publicise it. And I fail to understand how anyone could feel otherwise.

If I had behaved as Jenny did, I would have taken my recollection to the grave. To bar a man from seeing his dying wife, and for her to die alone as a consequence, is a terrible thing to have done, and not an example of “personal sacrifice” at all, since this was suffering forced upon a couple who had no choice in the matter.

The (in)famous 20th May Downing Street garden party. Via twitter

Some will say that Jenny had no choice either: that she was following guidance imposed by her superiors, who in their turn were following guidance written by the people who on 20 May were drinking rosé in the Downing Street garden. We are all now agreed, no doubt, that this was an inexcusable act of hypocrisy on the part of these senior government officials, including the Prime Minister. Heads must roll and, at the time of writing, are starting to.

But does that let the likes of “Jenny” off the hook? Or indeed the Labour Party, who supported the Tory government’s measures that led to so many sad and solitary deaths? We are going to have to reckon with this question as the pandemic comes to an end.

We have vaccinated most of the country, the Omicron wave has passed — having proven to be mild — and the remaining restrictions are being lifted. Soon this period of our nation’s history will be nothing more than a memory — and, importantly, a politically contested one. It is essential we remember honestly what the Jennys did if we’re to stop them from doing it again.

What we wanted to do

People tend to be bad at accurately remembering political events. Pollsters refer to this phenomenon as “false recall”. Ask a set of respondents how they voted at the last election, and you will not get an answer that lines up with the actual results, no matter how well you weigh the sample. This is because some portion of those respondents will have forgotten how they voted.

I’m often guilty of this, since I sometimes vote tactically, and so tend to forget whether I voted for my true first choice at the last election, or for the candidate I thought was more likely to win in my constituency. Other respondents give the party they currently support, rather than the party they actually voted for. Still more will claim that they voted for the winning party, forgetting that they actually backed the loser.

It’s this latter phenomenon that is most relevant to the political legacy of the pandemic, and it’s one that we should remain vigilant against, because the “Jenny” tweet reveals the narrative that could so easily become the story we tell ourselves about the pandemic.

This deeply objectionable fable goes something like this: “we were all frightened out of our wits, we all obeyed the rules, we all did what we were told by Downing Street, and goddamn them for taking us all for fools.”

This narrative may prove tempting for Labour, and is one they are already gesturing towards. “Lockdowns come at enormous cost to people’s lives and health, and the country’s economy,” Keir Starmer wrote on 14 January in the wake of the Downing Street garden party revelations. “Being forced into a hokey-cokey of restrictions will only do more harm in the long term.”

Politicians told the public something they clearly didn’t believe to be true

What the leader of the Opposition says is true. Lockdowns are terribly costly, both economically and in terms of the ruinous effect they have on the nation’s health and wellbeing. This fact was pointed out again and again, and throughout the pandemic, by those who have consistently been sceptical of the net benefit of repeated lockdowns. Yet Sir Keir not only supported every lockdown measure, but also regularly pushed for harder and more sweeping restrictions than the government was willing to impose. And the people who opposed these measures were widely dismissed as cranks and loons. “Bug chasers” was a popular slur that sticks in the mind.

It is still too soon to say if the “bug chasers” will be vindicated, data-wise. Ten or 20 years from now, research will presumably reveal whether it was the lockdown-averse Swedish or the lockdown-happy New Zealanders who made the right call.

But the garden party revelations do show us one thing. As staunch lockdown proponent Piers Morgan puts it: “The worst thing about all these illicit Downing Street parties is they will make Covid sceptics and anti-lockdowners feel vindicated in their suspicions that the virus was never that dangerous or why would the people running the country all be ignoring the rules so brazenly?”

The point is succinctly expressed, even if I disagree with Morgan’s assessment of “the worst thing” about the party revelations (I’d say that people dying alone was probably a fair bit worse). The parties show us these senior people were not personally afraid of the virus, even as they were encouraging us to be afraid. That includes Keir Starmer, who was photographed sharing a beer with campaign workers in Durham in Spring 2021, in an arguable breach of the regulations – in spirit, at least.

No one should doubt how adroitly the government and its media supporters were able to encourage fear. Those supporting that work include the Labour leader, from his own harmless can of beer, to his much more baleful egging on of the government.

Risk takers not taking risks

To go by their behaviour, it’s clear senior politicians didn’t think that the virus was “that dangerous”, at least for them. This isn’t a typical case of “do as I say, not as I do” — hardly unusual among politicians — where the little people are told not to do something the adults privately can. Instead, politicians told the public something they clearly didn’t believe to be true: that the rules were in place for our own good, to protect us.

No wonder the public are so angry. But the exact quality of that anger is going to depend on our own personal experiences of lockdown, and our own personal responses to the rules. Here I suggest we can be divided roughly into two groups.

Let’s call the first group “the obedient”. These were the people who were profoundly frightened — of the law, of the disease, or both. They carefully observed every rule, and sometimes went further than asked.

We all heard stories on the grapevine of people whose obedience had become seriously dysfunctional: the middle-aged lady who refused to touch her post or talk to anyone except through a closed window; another older lady who forced her husband to strip down in the garden and disinfect his clothes every time he returned from the shops.

Sometimes there was mental illness at play. At other times, an authoritarian streak announced itself in the form of curtain twitching. Many more obedient people just followed the rules because they thought it was the right thing to do, and they trusted the government to advise them correctly. The Telegraph’s Allison Pearson recalled her own 20th May experience, after the garden party story broke:

On May 20, 2020, as my calendar reminds me, I did as I was finally allowed to do. I dashed through the rain to a park where I saw my friend Lou for the first time in two months. Gosh, we wanted to hug each other so badly. Instead, we stood ‘at least two metres apart’ and opened our arms wide in an imaginary embrace, grinning like idiots. Actually, we were idiots. We know that now. Complete and utter fools. How stupid to feel so anxious that we might have misunderstood the rules and were doing something wrong (but we did).

Petty tyrants who were cruel in all sorts of pointless, miserable ways

Many of the obedient will now feel humiliated, just as Pearson describes. Some will translate this humiliation into fury at the government. But they are unlikely to feel as furious as the second group of people, who I will call “the obstructed”. It didn’t matter what the obstructed thought about the disease or the restrictions. They were forced into obedience by institutions. The story recounted by “Jenny” features a man obstructed in just such a way, and trying with all his might to resist, but many of the people belonging to the obstructed group were not physically capable of resisting.

I’m thinking in particular of the nearly half a million UK care home residents who were prevented from seeing their loved ones. Do you remember those “heartwarming” news stories, periodically shared during the later stages of the pandemic, featuring an elderly couple being reunited following forced separation as a result of care home restrictions?

We were supposed to coo at the sight of these broken people finally released from their imprisonment, but I wanted to retch. The average care home resident lives for less than two years. The lockdowns robbed these people of joy and companionship in order to stretch out their lives by a matter of months, and they were never asked if that was what they wanted.

And here’s something we must not forget in future years, when the historical narrative around this pandemic is being shaped. Sometimes these obstructions were imposed by people who had little choice, since they were frightened of their superiors, or faced a credible threat of police action. But, at other times, the obstructed were oppressed by petty tyrants who were cruel in all sorts of pointless, miserable ways.

Grab the wagging fingers

Jenny’s hospital wasn’t actually required by law to keep visitors away. What the Labour Party tweet failed to mention is that by 20 May 2020 end-of-life visits were permitted, albeit at the discretion of hospitals or other care facilities. NHS guidance dated 13 May 2020 detailed the practical steps that ought to be taken to minimise the risk of infection, but made clear that the dying have a right “to see their loved ones and/or to receive religious support”.

There were other sins committed, too, and by other sinners

Which is why my diary tells me I visited my great uncle at his care home on 4th June 2020, two weeks after the Downing Street garden party, and not long before he died. My father and I were asked to take every reasonable precaution: we wore full PPE, were led round to the back entrance to avoid passing through the building, and we were told not to touch anything, or to get within two metres of anyone. We did all of that, and gratefully, because we understood the necessity of the precautions, but we also needed to say goodbye.

The last I heard, my great uncle’s care home had managed to protect all its residents from Covid, while also protecting their humanity. At no stage did a “Jenny” figure bar the doors. It isn’t true that, during those weeks in 2020, dying people were legally required to be separated from their loved ones. And it isn’t true that everyone behaved as she did. While most of us belonged to the obstructed class in one way or another — and with more or less devastating consequences, depending on our circumstances — not everyone belonged to the obedient class.

The people who did bad or silly things in the service of lockdown may struggle to reconcile themselves to this truth, in the same way that the people who supported the Iraq War were squeamish, in later years, about admitting to it. In 2003, poll after poll showed that a majority of the British public thought that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. But, in a further iteration of “false recall”, a decade later only 37 per cent remembered having held this view.

Yes, it is our leaders who are ultimately responsible for their errors and their hypocrisies – there is no argument to be had on that point. They must take most of the blame, when the history comes to be written. But they can’t take the whole of the blame. There were other sins committed, too, and by other sinners.

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