At 9.55pm on Wednesday 1 December, I posted this tweet
I had been idly browsing the BBC news website and seen a reference to the Daily Mirror article about a Christmas party held in Downing Street the week before Christmas 2020. And then the date jumped out at me: 18 December 2020, the day my brother died in hospital.
Seven weeks later our very elderly mother, who was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, died in her care home. She had not seen any member of her family in real life for approximately a year at that point. We had carried out many FaceTime visits, but they did not allow her infant great-grandchildren to properly interact with their ‘Old Nana’. This was always the element of visits most likely to raise a smile from her, despite the fact she had been unable to speak in sentences for the previous two years.
… A hundred billon bottles washed up on the shore
Angered that the UK government was partying as people, including my own relatives, had died with only kind strangers physically present, as relatives were prevented from being in attendance due to lockdown rules at that time, I tapped out a hasty tweet and posted it. Little did I know the response that I would get.
As soon as the tweet uploaded to Twitter, the icons underneath began ticking over like a timer. This continued all through the night, sped up the following day, and continued over that night and into the following day. It only began to slow down in the late evening of 3 December. And even now, likes, retweets and replies continue to trickle in.
I began to feel like the man in the old song, who casually casts his message upon the sea in a bottle, and receives ‘a hundred billion bottles’ returned by people in the same situation as him.
The vast majority of tweeters offered their condolences. There were fewer than 20 spiteful replies, principally from bot and troll accounts, which I instantly blocked. Above all, tweeters told me their own stories of bereavement, loneliness and isolation over the various lockdowns of 2020/21.
Personal accounts of bereavement and loss during lockdown
I will not quote any of them here, to respect the privacy of those posting, but here is a summary of points raised:
- Relatives in hospital in which no visiting was allowed, who died without seeing any member of their family again
- Relatives who were very elderly or terminally ill spending their last Christmas without being able to see any member of their family other than on FaceTime or through a window
- People unable to attend the funerals of their relatives other by watching on webcam, which had also been my own experience, due to living 250 miles away from the location
- NHS workers nursing covid patients who had to spend Christmas alone, due to fears of infecting vulnerable members of their own families
- And, most frequently repeated: “I wasn’t able to hug any of my relatives when we were mourning the death of someone in our family who died.”
One of the tweeters posting to my thread commented they were only able to say goodbye to their relative on WhatsApp. Another said the last message received on WhatsApp from a much-loved cousin was “no visitors”. One, although not reporting a bereavement, commented poignantly that she had only been able to see her granddaughter through glass during the first year of her life and consequently, the child still responded to her as though she was a stranger.
Finally, a few students and parents offered their condolences and reported that although their story did not match the tragedy of many others in the thread, they had been fined for holding parties with people with whom they shared halls of residence, due to the rule of numbers in the lockdown legislation.
Inside the Westminster bubble
The number of covid deaths registered in the UK over the week ending 18 December 2020 was 2,896. The number of covid deaths on 18 December was 403. Neither of my relatives had covid; my brother died from cancer and my mother from extreme old age and Alzheimer’s. However, everyone in the UK who was seriously ill/died over that period was subject to the same lockdown restrictions; rules that the vast majority of the UK population obeyed.
The fact that we now know that parties were in full swing in Downing Street with, the Daily Mirror proposes, 40 or 50 people “crammed cheek by jowl” is a trigger to the bereaved to relive the last days, hours and minutes of their dead relative or friend, experiencing additional pain and disillusionment in the realisation that the government was not obeying its own rules, which had deprived their dying relatives of comfort. The Independent adds that party games were played and that “Downing Street staff repeatedly held banned lockdown parties” over the 2020 Christmas period to which “the PM would turn a blind eye”.
Rules were not followed
The Manchester Evening News quotes the prime minister as commenting on 18 December that, over Christmas 2020, people should keep all Christmas celebrations “short, small and don’t see too many people”. Earlier that day, he had tweeted that same advice. And then apparently allowed a party involving 40 or 50 people living in different households to go ahead in No 10 Downing Street that evening.
The government insists that “rules were followed”. But how that could be the case is unclear. On the BBC News website, there is a short reference to a legal loophole that puts government offices outside emergency legislation, so that ministers have the flexibility to react swiftly to an emergency without breaking the law. But surely, it would be clear to an eight-year-old child that the desire to have a party is hardly an emergency.
The whole situation has been neatly summed up by Ros Atkins of the BBC, and his report can be viewed here.
So, how can relatives of people who died during the winter of 2020/21 process these revelations and move on? My tweet was also accessed by representatives of the mainstream media, and I was asked by some of them to explain my feelings to the public, which I initially did on GMTV.
Down the media rabbit hole
I’ve been asked how I feel by many people, friends and strangers, over the past few days. I think ‘bemused’ best sums it up. My tweet was spontaneously posted in response to an immediate feeling of disgust, that on the day my brother died with none of his family present – because we were obeying the law – the office of the prime minister had been irresponsible and disrespectful enough to throw a Christmas Party that broke that same law. The prospect that they may now be attempting to rely on a legal technicality to wriggle out of responsibility for their actions only makes it worse.
Over the past couple of days, I’ve also been a participant in two interviews where Tory supporters were on the panel, one a sitting MP. One argument they used to protect the government was that they didn’t agree with the lockdown legislation, intimating that people who did obey it were mugs. But the prime minister is quick to evoke the two World Wars of the 20th century when he wants to hold forth about solidarity in adversity. What would have happened if the majority of the population had taken that approach then?
The party of law and order
They also proposed that if the prime minister said the law had been obeyed despite not issuing a denial that parties were held in Downing Street over the lockdown period(s), then the people must accept that, and that he shouldn’t be questioned further. Why? I was not aware that the British prime minister was now the equivalent of an absolute monarch. And if the stories the papers are running are not true, why isn’t Downing Street categorically denying them, and threatening libel action?
Another argument put forward was that if the prime minister was not at the party, it shouldn’t be a problem. But this wasn’t a case of a group of young people illicitly partying in an older relative’s house while s/he wasn’t there. 10 Downing Street is the office and official residence of the British prime minister, one of the premier seats of the UK government, and the prime minister is in overall charge of what goes on within its walls. So, why doesn’t the buck stop with him, whether he was there or not, as it would with a head teacher if staff or pupils had broken the law in this way on school premises?
Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to follow up any of these questions. I have never been a Conservative voter, but I have always seen them as a party that emphasises tradition, respect, law and order. Perhaps this changed when Johnson took over the leadership. It would have been helpful to explore that question with his representatives, too. But I didn’t get the chance.
The media reality circus
I’ve also been shocked by contacts from other media outlets, to whom I did not eventually grant an interview, requesting huge amounts of personal information in order to run a story from a ‘reality’ perspective, focusing on individuals weeping and demanding personal apologies from the prime minister. When I explained that my perspective on the situation was not my own feelings, but the volume of response on the twitter thread; the hurt and anger so eloquently expressed by a huge number of respondents, their interest waned.
Most of all, I have been overwhelmed with the sadness, dignity and kindness of over a thousand strangers who posted a message about their own loss and sympathising with mine. I have tried to respond to everyone who posted a message about a death of a family member or friend, and I apologise to anyone I inadvertently left out. While engaging with so much tragedy was harrowing, the courage and public spiritedness expressed within the replies both touched and energised me. It is a testimony to the fundamental decency of a majority of British people, and for that reason, I would urge people to access the thread and read through it.
So, what now?
Honestly, I don’t know. I believe that people mourn and grieve in different ways and find their own strategies to get through such difficult times. My own ‘therapy’ over 2020 was to finish a novel I had begun sometime earlier, which deals with family, love, loss and redemption, published in July 2021. I have since moved onto constructing a sequel.
I personally wish the prime minister would resign. As a psychologist, it concerns me that the British people cannot feel safe while he is able to treat them with such disrespect and duplicity, and that this will negatively affect national stability during a time in which there are many so very many other issues that add to public insecurity. But if he does not have the decency to step down now, the next step will have to be decided by the Conservative Party and ultimately, through the ballot box. In the end, history will judge.
I hope we begin to see more high-quality investigative journalism in the style of Ros Atkins, asking abstract, salient questions to which responsible answers are demanded from public servants, including elected politicians. I hope we see less of journalists setting up reality circuses where all issues are personalised thence trivialised, contributing to the ongoing gaslighting of the population.
And I think for me personally, a good start would be a media and social media break. I will be taking this for at least the next week, during which time I hope responsible investigative journalism, and the efforts of opposition politicians, will continue to be brought to bear upon the government, in pursuit of resolution.