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“There was a god complex”: Adam Wagner on why Downing Street broke its own Covid rules

The No 10 parties have “all seemed egregious” to the barrister who spent two years tracking the UK’s pandemic legislation.

By Rachel Cunliffe

For anyone attempting to keep track of the ever-changing rules that have governed social contact in the UK over the past two years, Adam Wagner’s spreadsheet has been an invaluable resource.

The human rights barrister has been charting the many iterations of the UK’s Covid-19 legislation, from the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 that came into force on 10 February 2020, which enabled the government to detain suspected Covid cases, to an amendment made on 16 December 2021 updating the rules on international travel. To date there have been 92 legislative updates, meaning the rules have changed on average almost once a week since the pandemic first hit.

Wagner probably knows more about the minutiae of Britain’s Covid laws than anyone except those involved in drafting them — and possibly them too. So while the Prime Minister and his spokespeople have bumbled their way through questions about whether or not various Downing Street parties broke the rules, Wagner is clear.

“Any pre-arranged social gathering or a gathering that becomes a social gathering is obviously outside of the rules,” he says. “So the party on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral [16 April 2021], the 18 December [2020] Christmas party, probably the Prime Minister’s birthday party [19 June 2020], the Bring Your Own Booze party [20 May 2020] as well — these are all to me probably social gatherings.” He dismisses the defence that, as these gatherings took place in a workplace, they could be considered work events, and therefore within the rules. “There’s no work being done, these can’t reasonably be for work, it wouldn’t make any sense otherwise. And that’s essentially the test in the regulations.”     

He continues: “They’ve all seemed egregious to me. The only reason there’s any debate over them is because the government have maintained their denial and tried to exculpate themselves, not because there’s any real realistic way of avoiding legal liability.”

After a confusing series of contradictory statements, the Metropolitan Police finally announced last week that it would look into the party accusations, and 12 gatherings are under investigation. As for what the punishments might be, Wagner’s spreadsheet provides a helpful guide to how much the fixed penalty notices (FPN) were at various times, and he’s done a Twitter thread showing how the fines increase for multiple offences, potentially landing the Prime Minister with a bill of £12,300 if the reports that he attended six of the parties prove true. The “organisers” of a large gathering (more than 30 people) could be liable for £10,000 fines, with FPNs for attendees in the £60-200 range — amounts so small that supporters of Boris Johnson have argued that the continued focus on the scandal is overblown, a distraction from more important issues such the cost-of-living crisis and Russian aggression towards Ukraine.

But to dismiss Partygate as an irrelevance is to forget how the rest of the country — those who didn’t work in Downing Street — were treated under Covid legislation. Wagner has acted for a number of students who did receive £10,000 fines — a life-shattering amount — for organising house parties that he sees as “directly comparable” to some of the gatherings under investigation. “It’s exactly the same behaviour, it’s exactly the same numbers.”

And then there are the gatherings that weren’t allowed to take place. The Met is being challenged in the High Court by the women’s group Reclaim These Streets for refusing to allow a vigil for Sarah Everard, a woman murdered by a Met police officer, during lockdown. Wagner is representing the organisers. “They were threatened with £10,000 Fixed Penalty Notices and prosecution under the Serious Crime Act, which allows them to be prosecuted for encouraging others to breach coronavirus regulations,” he says, adding that there was not an outright ban on protests in place at the time and that police hadn’t considered the human rights implications of their behaviour. The result was that an unofficial vigil went ahead and was forcibly broken up by the Met on Covid grounds, just weeks before officers stationed in Downing Street turned a blind eye to a party involving a suitcase of wine and a broken swing.

Adam Wagner shows his spreadsheet of Covid legislation to John Ware on Panorama. Credit: BBC

Wagner was well known as a lawyer before the pandemic began. He founded the human rights charity EachOther in 2015 (originally named RightsInfo) and acted for the Campaign Against Antisemitism in the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation into the Labour Party. It is his relentless analysis of Covid laws and their human rights implications that has made him a familiar name outside legal circles, appearing regularly on TV and radio to shed light on whatever changes the government dreamt up that week. In addition to representing Reclaim These Streets and the unfortunate students, he has acted on behalf of people detained in quarantine hotels as international arrivals from red list countries, including a severely disabled child who was refused an exemption — the first successful challenge of the quarantine system.

“In other times, the detention of hundreds of thousands of people in hotels, including tens of thousands of children… the courts would be all over it,” he tells me. “But the courts have been really reticent.”

As for how the police have responded to becoming public health officers overnight, Wagner has more sympathy than might be expected, acknowledging how quickly they had to adapt and the near-impossible challenge of enforcing “ever-changing, complicated” laws which — by the policing watchdog’s own admission — they didn’t always understand. That doesn’t let them off the hook for the blatant double standards that have been laid bare in recent months.

“What has become clear in the Downing Street case is that police had so much discretion they lost sight of what they were meant to be doing,” Wagner says. “One of their duties is to make sure the legitimacy of the law isn’t undermined. There’s no more obvious way of doing that than letting off a number of obvious law breaches right in the centre of government.”

As party after party has been revealed, each met with an excuse or denial more absurd than the last, many have wondered how those literally drafting the lockdown laws which bound the rest of the country could have felt so blasé about breaking them. Wagner, having followed how those laws were being made, has his own theory.

“I don’t think it’s people who are evil or want to get one over on the British people. I just think they had too much power and not enough accountability,” he says. “Imagine: you’re used to helping with really complex policies that go through 27 different processes, through the House of Commons and the Lords, and get scrutinised extensively by civil society and by parliament. Then all of a sudden you’ve been asked to draft laws late at night and they’re going to come into force the next morning. Whatever you write is the law.

“Say the minister gets a knock on the door. ‘Hi, I really like going hunting with my friends — they’re really struggling because of their mental health. Do you mind just editing the regulations?’ ‘Yeah sure, I’ll sort out something for you.’ And in it goes.” The hunting exemption is a real example.

“It’s not a surprise to me that the people who were doing that began to feel that they were invulnerable from the law, that they were a kind of special category. Because they were creating the laws. They were bypassing parliament, effectively. And I think it went to their heads.”

Ultimately, if there is a lesson from Partygate, it might be less about Downing Street drinking culture or the Prime Minister’s personality flaws, and more about what happens when the checks and balances that define our government are removed. Divorced from reality by the sudden ability to change the law without any scrutiny or real opposition, perhaps those in power found it harder to see how the people actually affected by those laws would react to stories of birthday cakes and basement DJs in No 10.

“The power given to politicians through these emergency laws was too great, and I think that’s part of the reason they abused the power,” Wagner concludes. “There was a god complex.”

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