National Comment Comment

One rule for the government, another for students

The attitude of Boris Johnson's government to the Covid-19 restrictions shows the British people have been held in contempt

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Image Credit: Matt Link, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/, no changes made.

In January 2021, a twenty year old student in Nottingham was handed a £10,000 fine for throwing a party. At this time, Covid-19 restrictions prevented anyone in the UK from legally mixing with anyone outside of their household. In February, another twenty year old party-host, this time at Edge Hill University, was also fined £10,000. Her guests were each given £800 fixed penalty notices. These were not the only student parties shut down by the police. ‘Reckless’ ‘selfish’ and ‘putting lives at risk’: these were just some of the headlines used to describe the parties thrown by students during lockdown.

And this was understandable; we, like everyone else, have a duty to protect our NHS, to look after the elderly and the clinically vulnerable population and to save lives. In fact, most students understood this. At our own university, there has been a very high vaccine uptake. Currently, 75.3 percent of York’s students are fully vaccinated and over 90 percent have had their first dose, showing that we are taking both Covid-19 and the government’s advice seriously. According to the Office for National Statistics, students acted in the same way as the majority of the general public throughout the pandemic. Despite being blamed for spikes in cases, most of us behaved sensibly, knowing the risks of spreading the virus.

But students were not the only ones having parties. In the past few days, there have been media reports of multiple gatherings taking place in Downing Street in the winter of 2020. The most prevalent report is of a Christmas party on 18 December, when indoor gatherings were against the law. The very next day, Boris Johnson announced further restrictions across the country, effectively cancelling Christmas in order to, in his words, “do what is right to protect the people of this country”. While the Prime Minister’s staff were having a party in Downing Street, the rest of the country were adhering to lockdown restrictions. People were unable to be with their family members in their final moments, unable to attend births and funerals, and unable to spend Christmas with the people they love.

Following a leaked video of Allegra Stratton, the Prime Minister’s COP26 Spokesperson (who has since resigned), and various other government employees, laughing and joking about this Christmas party, the Prime Minister issued an apology. Not for the party, no – for the video.

“Is he really sorry? Or is he only sorry they got caught?”

Now, the government began by denying this gathering ever took place. But if it did take place, they insisted, it did not break any rules. When reminded that this was impossible, as any indoor gathering was illegal at this time, they remembered that this was a ‘fictional’ party that never happened in the first place. And after the leaking of the video, No. 10 took it upon themselves to assure the British public that the Prime Minister did not attend the party – the party that of course, didn’t happen.

The complete lack of accountability and transparency was illustrated further on Wednesday morning when Health Secretary Sajid Javid pulled out of all media interviews. This seems like an admission of guilt; but even more damningly, perhaps, is the idea that the government would rather Javid pull out, knowing it would be interpreted this way, than have him be grilled by interviewers. Is there even more to this story that we don’t yet know?

The evasiveness around this Christmas party is an insult to the intelligence of the British people. It is also an insult to the sacrifices made by the British public last winter, and over the past two years. Student populations are no exception to this. During the January lockdown, myself and many of my friends were at our university residences, not knowing how long it would be until we saw our families again. Travelling back and forth between homes was not allowed. We had to continue with our education online, which, while our tutors tried their best, was difficult to find motivation for. We listened to government advice because we knew we needed to protect the NHS, the elderly and the vulnerable.

I was lucky that I had close friends to live with, but those students who were just starting in first year were left isolated with people they barely knew. Without sports teams, nightlife or in-person seminars to make friends, lockdown at university could be a very lonely experience. Students were scapegoated. We were told we caused spikes in cases, and therefore hospitalisations and deaths. We were told we were ‘reckless’ and ‘selfish’. But if these words could be used to describe anybody, it is those in the highest offices in our country.

As this Christmas party proves once again, it is one rule for them and another for us. Trust in the government is surely one of the most important things for a functioning democracy. In the middle of a pandemic, when the government is more involved in our daily lives than ever before, trust is even more essential. But how can we trust a government that fails to follow their own rules and is willing to lie in order to cover this up?

After trying to depict himself as a man of the people, Boris Johnson, his government and his staff, have once again shown that they do not care one bit about the normal, everyday citizens of this country. Their arrogance, their incompetence and their lack of integrity is an insult to the British public.

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