Andrew Neil is back on our TV screens (‘Boris Johnson: Has He Run Out of Road?’, Channel 4 this evening). Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the documentary is when he confronts Michael Gove, one of the main advocates of lockdown, over the blood-curdling government posters used last year: ‘Look her in the eyes and tell her you never bend the rules.’ Now we know, Neil said, that those who commissioned these posters were breaking the rules.
The following exchange then takes place:
Andrew Neil ‘Given what we know now, it was a cavalier approach to lockdown.’
Michael Gove ‘The Prime Minister has been clear that mistakes were made and he’s taken responsibility for those. I’m sure that when the report is published there will be from individuals concerned recognition, contrition and so on and you know we owe them an element of Christian forgiveness.’
On one level, you can see his point. We’re not talking about mass fraud, embezzlement or fighting a war on a false premise: this is office wine, leaving dos, birthday cake. Whatever you may think of Boris Johnson’s No. 10 they were working in incredibly pressurised circumstances at a time whenit was illegal for two people to meet up socially for an outside walk, let alone go to the pub. They’re human. People need each other’s company and succour (especially if these people are young and living alone). It’s to be expected that, when they could, they’d stay late, open a bottle, break bread, talk things over, seek the human contact that is so hardwired into our nature. As they will all have known. there was almost no Covid in London when these events took place. Nothing they didposed a threat.
But then again, it was people in No. 10 who decided to send the police after those who broke the rules. Lockdown should only ever have been voluntary guidance. Instead, police were told by the Prime Minister to act as lockdown enforcers, arrest people for sitting on a park bench or walking their dog. They even raided children’s birthday parties.
And this is the problem. When police arrived to apprehend Becky Ward, fined £1,700 for visiting her boyfriend in a Portsmouth hotel, no one in government was talking about the need for forgiveness. When Douglas Courthouse was in prosecuted for visiting his girlfriend on the Isle of Man, he said he was suffering from depression and was not coping without her. No Christian forgiveness there: he was jailed.
Is it daft to have the Metropolitan Police investigate whether No. 10 staffers shared a bottle of Prosecco? Of course. But was it daft to use a police helicopter to chase and arrest a guy having a picnic on his own in Wales? Worse than daft: it was an outrageous breach of civil liberty. But that’s the regime we all had to live under for months, in spite of there being no evidence that it helped matters.
That’s why it’s harder to forgive those involved in partygate. It’s not that they did anything inherently awful. But they carried on a) knowing that their behaviour was perfectly safe and b) knowing that their laws had made law breakers out of everyone else who would do thesame. As they knew, under the regime designed in No. 10, police were going after anyone who would dare have cup or tea with a relative let alone a wine-suitcase drinking session with a DJ in the basement.
But if that lesson is learned, I do think – as Michael Gove says – that there is a place for forgiveness. Thousands of people were taken to the courts for defying the lockdown rules he advocated. They should now be forgiven – i.e. pardoned – and the fines repaid. And ideally alongside a government admission that a police-enforced lockdown turned out to be a calamitous failed experiment with negligible effect on Covid deaths and something that should never be repeated.
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