After five months of partygate being dissected in sometimes excruciating detail, you may be forgiven for thinking that every aspect of this scandal has been covered. But there is one point about the lawlessness and complacency we now know swept through the heart of government – a vitally important one, at that – which has received almost no attention.
“Business continuity” is not a term that will set tabloid pulses racing. And yet the lack of it, in the midst of a lethal pandemic, is possibly the most reckless – the most amateurish – aspect of what went on in No 10.
Throughout the pandemic almost every business or organisation I know where full remote working wasn’t possible put some plan in place to mitigate the risk from Covid-19. Staff were split into teams that were kept entirely apart. Key executives were prevented from coming into contact with each other. Factories staggered their shifts. Schools and nurseries put teachers and students in separate bubbles. Supermarkets alternated strict staff rotations. GP practices and pharmacies made sure that half their personnel worked from home. Hospital staff lived in hotel rooms. What’s more, most organisations implemented such measures before the government mandated them and continued with them long after restrictions were eased.
This was not to ensure that employers complied with the law or the guidance in place at the time. It was so that if some personnel became infected, the entire staff would not be incapacitated at the same time, paralysing the organisation.
Yet in Downing Street, where arguably the most important work in the country was going on, there was none of this. The Prime Minister, our own Superspreader in Chief, would jump from a meeting with MPs – one of whom turned out to be infected – straight to a meeting of Cobra, the government emergency committee, then dash off make a leaving speech to a packed room, with people sitting in each other’s laps, then up to another party in his flat.
We have heard how drinking parties would start in different departments, then merge later in the night into one big party. Boris Johnson would attend a birthday gathering with his chief of staff, his wife, his personal decorator and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, then usher his scientific staff into the same room for a key Covid meeting.
The central point here is not the law breaking or the lying that followed it – egregious as that obviously was. It is the national security threat that the entire country faced because of this selfish behaviour. There were times during which the list of who was infected or isolating read like a Who’s Who of Whitehall. Knowing as we do now how much reckless mixing was going on, it is by luck rather than judgement things didn’t get much worse.
It is bizarre to think that every business, hospital and school up and down the country understood the importance of avoiding paralysis except the nerve centre of our national response to the pandemic. It was essential, apparently, for everybody in the press office to be physically present. And then invite anyone from any other department to drop in for “wine time Fridays”.
Such behaviour cannot be excused with semantics about what is or isn’t essential for work, or explained away by the creative interpretation of the rules. The rules were in place to manage the risk of infection and a virus does not care whether a leaving do is essential for work or not. Considering the vital importance of the work going on in Downing Street, the strictest adherence to pandemic protocols was more, not less, important.
The tragedy is that, as we become obsessed with the lurid details of who vomited where and who punched whom, we’re missing the simple fact that the people charged with guiding the nation through this crisis should not have been mixing with each other in the middle of a pandemic, drunk or sober.
The Chancellor should never have breathed the same air as the Prime Minister, let alone Lulu Lytle (the interior designer and friend of Carrie Johnson who reportedly popped over). The PM’s most senior adviser and top civil servant should not have been helping themselves to cheese from the same plate as Johnson and his wife. And remember, all the junior staff who attended these events would then get on transport, mixing with dozens of other essential workers, who did take the rules seriously.
If this were a disaster movie, the spider’s web of infections in the dramatic simulation moment showing the spread of a disease would emanate from Downing Street. It was not merely the address most fined for breaching the rules; it was the address that took the biggest security risks with the nation’s health. This is the most unforgivable aspect of partygate: the unnecessary risk they took with their and our lives.
When Russia attacked Ukraine, the first thing that Volodymyr Zelensky’s government did was to separate the president from Yulia Svyrydenko, the first vice-prime minister, and the head of armed forces from his second in command. They are never together. Our leaders kept using war analogies, but acted as if they were on Spring Break.
At a minimum, staff should have been split into multi-disciplinary teams that never came into contact with each other, each of which was capable of providing a skeleton crew. The key offices of state – Prime Minister, Chancellor, Health Secretary, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary – should never have breathed the same air.
This is basic risk management. If a nursery can manage it, Downing Street should have thought of it. It didn’t and, for lack of challenge, still hasn’t. There is instead a blithe assumption that we have a few years to run an ineffectual inquiry into Covid and then another few to fail to implement its recommendations before the next crisis hits.
Which brings me to my final point. What if the next dangerous Covid variant is in fact weeks away? Or what if there’s another pandemic (Monkeypox, say), or a nerve agent attack, like in Salisbury in 2018, or a major terrorism incident? With what possible authority could this government ask people to trust it and do as instructed? And how many of us would comply this time around?