Covid, the media, and Boris Johnson

Covid and parties.
The year began much like 2021 ended – Prime Minister Boris Johnson struggling to manage a spreading covid pandemic as more media scoops reported he and his staff appearing to break covid precaution rules.

That fuelled further public anger and a drop in public trust, calls for him to resign, and turmoil in the governing Conservative party.
It damaged the prime minister in exposing his behaviour, forced minor reorganizations of his 10 Downing Street office and his cabinet, led to multiple resignations of senior staff, and tarnished the reputations of both the UK’s top civil servant and London’s Metropolitan Police.

Johnson’s investigator Sue Gray could only release an edited and incomplete report at the end of January after the police reversed their earlier decision not to investigate but still found “failures of leadership and judgment” in Number 10 and criticised the culture in Johnson’s Downing Street office that allowed social gatherings to take place during lockdown which were “difficult to justify”.

As the narrative threatened Johnson’s future as prime minister and Conservative party leader he announced that covid restrictions would end because the Omicron variant was proving not as dangerous as feared earlier. There was no official scientific advice delivered before that announcement.

It was on January 10 following more than a month of media revelations about multiple government parties appearing to break lockdown rules that ITV news broadcast an email from a top Johnson aide inviting up to 100 staff to a garden party in the middle of the first covid lockdown on 20 May 2020.
Johnson refused to answer reporters’ questions about the party in his garden and failed to appear in Parliament on January 11 to respond to an urgent question from the Labour Opposition.

The next day he did appear for Prime Minister’s Questions.
He admitted he was there, said he thought it was a work event, acknowledged public anger about apparent double standards, apologized, and asked that his own inquiry into a series of lockdown-breaking parties be allowed to complete.

Public support plummeted.
Conservative MPs acknowledged widespread public anger as a number avoided comment or offered lukewarm support.
Johnson’s team mounted two widely reported plans to save him – nicknamed Operation Save Big Dog intended to blame his staff and Operation Red Meat aimed at deflecting public attention with a series of populist policy announcements.
The media revealed more parties during covid lockdowns.

And after Johnson’s pool interview with Sky News political editor Beth Rigby, senior Conservative MP, ex-Brexit secretary, and former leadership contender David Davis urged the prime minister to resign, saying he had failed to shoulder responsibility for the party rule breaking.
In the same session of the House of Commons, a red-wall Tory defected from the Conservatives to the opposition Labour party. Christian Wakeford is MP for Bury South, one of 20 northern constituencies which swung from Labour to the Conservatives in Johnson’s 2019 election win. Of course media in both the UK and around the world followed the revelations by ITV’s Paul Brand.
It was the private tv network’s second scoop of the partygate scandal, the first climaxing a week of stories broken by the Daily Mirror and its political editor Pippa Crerar.
After ITV broadcast a video on 7 December 2021 where Johnson’s staff appeared to joke about a key controversial party a year earlier on 18 December 2020, the prime minister apologized for any offence and announced an investigation by his most senior civil servant.

All through it, Johnson claimed covid rules were not broken and tried to focus public attention on dealing with the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of covid.
The media also reported on that as they had throughout the pandemic – on covid, on government delays in taking precautionary measures, and on a series of questionable government contracts through 2020.

Those contracts have been the target of a series of lawsuits over the past 2 years spearheaded by the Good Law Project, seeking to reveal details of government spending on covid and the questionable ways in which contracts were awarded.

In a rare loss on January 18 the Court of Appeal overturned a lower court ruling, saying a contract awarded to a company founded by friends of former Johnson adviser Dominic Cummings was lawful. The Good Law Project said it would appeal.
A week earlier on January 12, the UK High Court ruled in a different case that the government broke the law in using a special fast-track “VIP lane” to award contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) to two companies.
And just a day before the partygate revelations on January 10, the Sunday Times reported that the government planned to limit free lateral flow tests – a plan quickly denied by one cabinet minister but then not ruled out by another.
Johnson and his ministers continued to resist most calls for tougher measures on covid, quoting data that seemed to indicate a levelling off in Omicron and a hope that it would soon become more manageable.

It was reporters – mainstream media reporters in newspapers, television and radio – who broke the stories but it was actions by Johnson and people around him which fed a long-simmering suspicion that his government operated as if there were one set of rules for them and another for the public.

Police investigation into covid parties
Police reverse decision on investigating covid parties
Met police under pressure
Sue Gray delivers preliminary report
Text of Sue Gray preliminary report
Conservative Home on the Sue Gray investigation
The Sue Gray investigation – a civil service take
Sue Gray
Boris Johnson announces end of covid restrictions
Covid and parties – a torrid December 2021
ITV News covid party email
Johnson avoids answering questions
Johnson avoids Parliament
Johnson apologizes
Text of Johnson apology
Opinium poll January 15
Operation Save Big Dog
Downing street staff dejected – PoliticsHome
Operation Red Meat
More parties – as of January 17
Dominic Cummings says Johnson lied about May 2020 party
Beth Rigby interviews Johnson
David Davis tells PM to resign
Tory MP defects to Labour – the Bury Times
Christian Wakeford defects – The Guardian
Is the party over? – FT January 12
Angela Rayner attacks PM
Party rules – BBC
France24 on party scandal – January 11
Deutsche Welle on party scandal – January 11
New York Times on party scandal – January 11
Instant public opinion polling
Nov. 30 – The Mirror reveals Christmas 2020 party
Dec.7 – ITV shows PM staff joking
Dec.8 – Johnson apologizes, announces investigation
Dominic Cummings wins in court – January 18
High court rules government broke law on covid contracts – January 12
Covid and contracts
Good Law project
Sunday Times reports plan to limit lateral flow tests
Minister denies plan to scale back lateral flow tests
Michael Gove refuses to rule out limiting tests
Boris Johnson claims progress in tackling Omicron