LONDON — After the death of a close friend, Kieron McArdle was struggling, and three friends came over to help him celebrate his 50th birthday in his backyard in Coleshill, a town in Warwickshire, England. Less than an hour later, the police were banging on the front door.
“It’s galling to watch. It’s one rule for them, one for us,” said McArdle, a company director. “What they did was exactly the same as what I did,” he said, only “I was happy to pay my fine. I broke the rules and accept responsibility. Why don’t they?”
Britain is awaiting the findings of dual investigations into government parties — more than a dozen have emerged — that allegedly broke the government’s own coronavirus rules. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has apologized for three of the gatherings but stopped short of admitting any personal wrongdoing.
In the case of Johnson’s birthday, ITV News reported that 30 people attended an afternoon gathering — with singing and a Union Jack-themed cake — on June 19, 2020, when the country was in its first and strictest lockdown. A Downing Street spokesman told The Washington Post that staff members “gathered briefly in the Cabinet Room after a meeting to wish the prime minister a happy birthday. He was there for less than 10 minutes.” Downing Street has maintained that other gatherings were work-related — never mind all those bottles of wine.
For people outside of government who have been punished for breaking covid-19 rules, it’s been infuriating to observe what they say are double standards. They say their trespasses look a lot like what the people at the center of power have been doing — and not once or twice but throughout the pandemic — without consequence.
Since the start of the pandemic, more than 100,000 “fixed penalty notices” — the covid equivalent of a speeding ticket — have been issued in England and Wales to people violating coronavirus restrictions. During some stages of the pandemic, the rules have been very strict, with little to no mixing of households allowed, and with people permitted to leave their homes only in limited circumstances.
The size of the fine has depended on the offense. A large proportion have been for breaching bans on small gatherings. Those carried penalties of about $270, which could be reduced by half if paid promptly. People who had unlawful gatherings of more than 30 people — such as a student in Nottingham — faced a steeper penalty of about $13,400.
The possibility of punishment was real enough that a London police officer was able to falsely arrest Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, on the pretext that she had broken lockdown rules. He was convicted last year for her rape and murder.
Adam Wagner, a lawyer who has tracked the lockdown rules closely, said there have been more than 100 rule changes during the pandemic, with a change every four to five days on average. So it’s been difficult for many people to keep up with the latest regional and national rules, and to separate what’s law and what’s advice.
“It was pretty confusing and difficult for people,” Wagner said. There were “endless iterations of different rules: we had three tiers, then four tiers; then local restrictions, then different restrictions in bigger areas; national lockdowns, local lockdowns. And the rules within the regions changed regularly.”
But, he added, “none of that excuses how the government behaved — these were literally people making the rules,” he said of the government ministers, who gave regular televised briefings on what the rules were.
Wagner said some of the alleged Downing Street parties look difficult to defend, including the birthday gathering for the prime minister.
“I can’t see how that could possibly be allowed under the rules. There was no work being done. It was a gathering to celebrate a birthday,” said Wagner, who works for Doughty Street Chambers law firm and is a visiting professor of law at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Some people who have been fined say they should get their money back.
In the lead-up to Christmas 2020, James Kearns, 41, who runs a scaffolding company, invited about a dozen of his employees out for a drink. Pubs and restaurants were closed at the time, but he has the keys to his father’s pub in east London. So he let the crew in, and — although they had been working side-by-side throughout the year — he asked that they spread out in groups of three.
Within 20 minutes, he said, about 20 police officers were knocking on the doors. “We hid in the toilets, but the banging wouldn’t go away. So I had no choice but to go and let them in.” They were all fined £100, or about $134.
Initially, Kearns said, he thought it was fair: After all, they had broken the rules.
It has since emerged that just five days before Kearns’s gathering, Downing Street may have held its own Christmas Party. According to the Daily Mirror, which first reported the story, about 40 to 50 people were “crammed” into a room Dec. 18, 2020. Some wore Christmas sweaters. There was a Secret Santa gift exchange.
Johnson told Parliament he had been “repeatedly assured” that there was no Downing Street Christmas party and that no covid rules had been broken. But video leaked of his staffers joking about such a party, and his aide, Allegra Stratton, resigned over it.
“We should get our money back,” Kearns said. “Boris Johnson is doing the exact same thing as what everyone else was doing, and he hasn’t been fined. They are the people running the country and making up the rules — don’t they have to abide by the rules? How is that fair?”