‘I missed mother’s last moments’: Covid victims’ loved families react to Boris Johnson Partygate probe
Having missed her last moments due to Covid restrictions, Mick Yates stood two metres apart from his brothers as his mother’s coffin was lowered into her grave on 26 June 2020. A week before, Boris Johnson had been photographed in a room full of at least 30 people celebrating his birthday at a time of strict lockdown rules.
Throughout the pandemic, countless people were in Mr Yates’ position, unable to be with loved ones when they died, and banned from hugging family and friends at funerals – if they were even able to attend. Meanwhile, the then-prime minister attended gatherings at Downing Street, flouting the very rules he was supposed to be enforcing as part of attempts to curb the virus’ spread and reduce pressure on the NHS.
Mr Yates and an NHS worker, who lost three friends in 2020, have shared their experiences during a week when Boris Johnson endured a fraught showdown with MPs who are investigating whether he intentionally misled Parliament over the parties.
Mr Johnson this week admitted that he did mislead MPs, but has denied doing so “intentionally or recklessly”, saying he relied on advice from aides during the events at No 10 that took place between May 2020 and April 2021.
Mr Yates’ mother Doris – “frail but fully with it” – died aged 93 of Covid-19 and pneumonia on 29 May, three days after she fell ill. Mr Yates, from Wiltshire, said the Covid restrictions in place at the time made it too difficult to be by her mother’s side in Burton Upon Trent before she died.
Only he, his wife, two siblings and their wives were able to attend the funeral. “My mum was quite popular, and she did want to have a funeral where people could come along,” said the 73-year-old. “But that wasn’t possible. That was the worst side of it, that my mum’s own wishes couldn’t be fulfilled.”
He said he understood the rules “were there for good reasons” but the social distancing made the day of the funeral “incredibly poignant”. The rules also meant the family had to go their separate ways straight afterwards.
Karen, a nurse from Wales, lost three friends in 2020, when some of the Downing Street events took place. One was an “absolutely amazing” senior nurse “who would do anything for anyone”, she said. Another was a “beautiful” nurse who left behind young children. And there was the porter “who went above and beyond all the time”. Karen said she was unable to attend any of their funerals due to Covid restrictions. “It’s just devasting,” she said.
The 51-year-old, who did not wish to disclose her surname for safety reasons, caught coronavirus twice and is still struggling with long Covid over a year later. She said she has been “rendered virtually housebound” and unable to shower without losing her breath.
After 33 years as a nurse in the NHS, she has been forced to stop working, losing her income, she said. She has four children and lost her husband to a motorcycle accident a few months before Covid struck.
Working in A&E throughout the pandemic, Karen described it as “disastrous” and “disorganised chaos”. “We had patients in the cupboard, in the shower room, in the mortuary, in the viewing room, in the staff room,” she said, adding that many patients were dying without friends and family by their side. “It’s inherent in us that if you see patients deteriorating, you bring relatives in so they don’t die alone – we couldn’t do that,” she said.
Karen compared the behaviour of nurses like herself to Mr Johnson’s: “I find it absolutely appalling. I think it’s absolutely disgusting that he thinks he can say he wasn’t aware of the rules he spent every night standing at that podium telling everyone else to follow. Meanwhile, nurses were going home and thanking god we hadn’t died – it was a lottery.
She continued: “When he was having wine time Fridays, we were working in horrific conditions. Working in PPE in the hottest summer we’ve had in a while is not the easiest thing. [And it was so busy], even going to the loo during a shift would be abnormal.”
Mr Yates said, for him, it was Mr Johnson’s sheer “lack of responsibility” that was hard to bear. “I just don’t understand the mindset that says ‘not me guv’ – it’s totally disingenuous,” he said. “His track record is not good – this is just the icing on the cake. I think the whole circus around it is disrespectful to the general public.”
Mr Johnson told the committee of MPs that his attendance at some events was “essential” for staff morale and to thank staff for their work during the pandemic. He said there were attempts to socially distance but that the “cramped” conditions of Downing Street work meant adhering to the guidance “could not be perfectly observed”.
If the committee finds Mr Johnson to be in contempt of Parliament, it will recommend a punishment which must then be approved by MPs. Sanctions could range from an apology to ordering that Mr Johnson be suspended, which could trigger a by-election in his Uxbridge and Ruislip constituency.