Last March, I watched as police stormed a peaceful vigil – grabbing mourners, shoving them to the ground and leading them away in handcuffs. It was the most terrified I’ve ever been, and I hadn’t expected it, having attended the event at Clapham Common in London to pay my respects to Sarah Everard.
Sarah was kidnapped and murdered by a serving Metropolitan Police officer, Wayne Couzens. Couzens was jailed for life in September 2021.
Four people were due before magistrates today after being charged by the Metropolitan Police with allegedly breaking COVID lockdown rules at the vigil. The defendants are said to have been part of an unlawful gathering “without reasonable excuse”, though full details of the allegations are yet to be released.
Thankfully, I managed to get away from the vigil safely. But the dramatic scenes have stayed with me – as has the sad irony that Sarah was killed by a member of the Met Police after Couzens convinced her she had broken lockdown rules and lured her to his police car.
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
What’s more, while Sarah died for following lockdown rules and mourners were assaulted, Boris Johnson and his politician friends were repeatedly breaking lockdown rules in their Downing Street parties – and getting away with it.
This impunity and hypocrisy reveals what really matters to the people in charge of this country – and the police officers who protect their interests.
The Met Police declined to investigate the Downing Street parties for months, claiming an “absence of evidence”, but then sought to derail the publication of Sue Gray’s report, claiming it could hinder their own investigation.
Meanwhile, the brunt of the fines have been borne out by junior civil servants who attended parties with their bosses, while cleaners and security staff who raised concerns that lockdown rules were being breached, were dismissed and laughed at.
Instead, the same police force spent time, effort and (public) money trying to defend themselves in the face of allegations that they were heavy-handed at Sarah Everard’s vigil. It even went to the High Court to attempt to overturn the ruling that it breached the rights of the organisers by threatening them with £10,000 COVID fines.
While the official vigil last March was cancelled, hundreds including the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton turned up anyway in the last spot where Sarah had been seen alive. She reminded us of ourselves innocently walking home from a friend’s, where she enjoyed a glass of wine.
But it’s now clearer than ever that, like all rules, lockdown rules were only ever for us – for mourners, for low-paid workers, for ordinary people like Sarah Everard, and not for men in power and those that protect them.
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
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Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
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