openDemocracyUK: News

18,000 people have been fined for doing what Boris Johnson did

Police in England and Wales disproportionately fined Black and Asian people, but have so far refused to investigate lockdown breaches at Number 10

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Adam Bychawski Ramzy Alwakeel
12 January 2022, 5.04pm
The prime minister has been accused of attending several parties at Number 10 while gatherings were banned under coronavirus laws.
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Police in England and Wales have fined more than 18,000 people for meeting outside during the pandemic – a crime for which Boris Johnson has repeatedly escaped punishment.

Black, Asian and ethnic minority people were disproportionately hit with fixed penalty notices (FPNs) between March 2020 and November 2021. Black people in particular were more than twice as likely to be fined as white people. 

By contrast, the prime minister was among ministers and officials who attended a series of lockdown-busting parties held under the auspices of ‘work gatherings’ at Number 10 in 2020, none of which has so far seen police take action.

“Now we know that while some communities were being subjected to disproportionate and harmful policing and locked out of support, those in power were attending drinks parties at Number 10,” said Jun Pang, policy and campaigns officer at human rights advocacy group Liberty.

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“This is typical of a government that sees itself as above the law – and that is currently pushing through various pieces of legislation to make itself untouchable.”

Penalties for FPNs issued under COVID regulations range from £100 for first-time offenders – though this is reduced if paid early – to £6,400 in England and £1,920 in Wales for repeat offenders.

The 18,182 COVID-related fines are among 118,963 FPNs dished out in total by forces across England and Wales since the first lockdown was imposed in March 2020.

Police handed out more than 800 during the week of Number 10’s ‘bring your own booze’ party in May 2020. The National Police Chiefs’ Council data does not break down the number of people fined solely for gathering outdoors by ethnicity.

Some 7% of fines were issued to Black people, but only 3.7% of the population in England and Wales is Black, according to 2021 estimates by the Office of National Statistics. And 12% of fines were issued to Asian people, who make up 6.9% of the population. By contrast, 76% of fines went to white people, who make up 84.9% of the population. That means a Black person, on average, was 2.11 times as likely as a white person to be fined. 

The figures also reveal that 76% of fines were issued to under-35s and 70% of those fined were men.

Just nine days before the boozy Downing Street party, police were able to disperse people for sunbathing or having picnics in the park, with sitting and resting in parks banned until 11 May.

In late April, a woman was arrested for sitting on a bench in Richmond Park in London. “I’m sat here on my own. I’m not infecting anyone,” the woman was seen telling a police officer who approached her and asked her to go home in a video of the arrest posted on YouTube. The woman was later released and issued with an FPN. 

From 13 May, one week before the party, two people from separate households were permitted to meet outside in a public place, such as a park, provided they stayed 2 metres apart.

Asked about the Downing Street party, the Metropolitan Police said in a statement they were “aware of widespread reporting relating to alleged breaches” on 20 May and were in contact with the Cabinet Office.

Last month, a photograph emerged showing a previous gathering at Number 10 in December 2020, when London was under ‘Tier 2’ restrictions. Johnson is pictured in it along with his wife Carrie Johnson.

The Met did not investigate, claiming there was an “absence of evidence” and that its policy is not to investigate retrospective breaches of coronavirus regulations. Number 10 insisted no rules had been broken, but did not explain how this could have been the case.

Then yesterday it was revealed that the prime minister’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, had invited more than 100 employees in Number 10 to attend an outdoor drinks party on 20 May 2020 to “make the most of the lovely weather”, according to an email obtained by ITV News.

At the time of the party, the rest of the country was banned from meeting more than one person outdoors. Around 40 people are reported to have attended the garden party, including the prime minister – who admitted today in Parliament that he had been there for 25 minutes.

The party took place just days after another previously reported event. On 15 May, Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie Johnson and several Downing Street staff were pictured in a leaked photo drinking wine and eating cheese in the Number 10 garden. The prime minister insisted that the image showed “people at work talking about work”.

In today’s Prime Minister's Questions, Johnson gave a statement in Parliament apologising for the gathering. 

“While I cannot anticipate the conclusions of the current inquiry [by civil servant Sue Gray into alleged lockdown breaches at Downing Street], I have learned enough to know there were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility,” he said.

Johnson said he went into the garden to thank staff for their work before returning to his office. 

“I believed implicitly that this was a work event but... with hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside,” he said.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said that the prime minister was “finally forced to admit what everyone knew: that when the whole country was locked down, he was hosting boozy parties in Number 10”.

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