Portsmouth responds to ‘betrayal’ as PM admits hosting lockdown garden party in Downing Street - while families unable to meet, bereaved suffer ‘misery’ of funeral restrictions, and vulnerable people tried to ‘stay alive’

PORTSMOUTH residents reflect back on a ‘heartbreaking time’ in 2020 as the Prime Minister admits hosting a garden party in Downing Street in the height of lockdown.

Wednesday, 12th January 2022, 3:20 pm

It was revealed that more than 100 staff were invited to a ‘bring your own booze’ garden party at Downing Street in May 2020.

While the rest of the nation was under strict rules to help prevent the spread of Covid-19, 30-40 employees are said to have attended the May 20 gathering - which took place just days after another ‘wine and pizza’ party was held in Downing Street.

At the time, social mixing was against the rules - except for meeting one person from another household outdoors in a public place, staying two metres apart.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs), in the House of Commons today. Picture: PRU/AFP via Getty Images

Today in the Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson fended off several calls for his resignation and urged MPs to wait for the outcome of the inquiry into the parties.

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The PM apologised but said that as he attended the May 20 party, he ‘believed implicitly that this was a work event’.

He said: ‘I know that millions of people have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months. I know the anguish they have been through, unable to mourn their relatives, unable to do the things they love.

Mary Hopes, funeral celebrant.

‘And I know the rage they feel with me and the government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.’

Leader of the opposition Keir Starmer repeatedly called for the PM’s resignation, and said: ‘After months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road.

‘His defence, that he didn’t realise he was at a party, is so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive to the British public.’

Funeral celebrant Mary Hopes has worked throughout the pandemic, only taking a total of three weeks’ leave as she helps people to commemorate the passing of their loved ones.

Mary believes the decisions of those who chose not to follow the rules ‘will be seen as a complete and utter betrayal of those who did.’

She added that it was ‘a truly heartbreaking time for all concerned - and it’s not being made any better knowing that there were those who couldn’t stick to the rules they made.’

Attendance numbers during funerals in the height of lockdown were limited to six to 15 people, depending on the size and shape of the chapel.

Most crematoria insisted that no family member could carry the coffin into the chapel, while prayer books were removed, and singing, service booklets, and floral tributes were not permitted due to safety concerns.

Mary said: ‘Celebrants and funeral directors/staff were left to have difficult conversations with families who were often distraught that they couldn’t honour last wishes.

‘We all had to abide by those rules whether we wanted to or not.’

The Hampshire-based celebrant added that she has not met a single family who did not recognise the need for the restrictions, understanding that ‘there was no alternative’.

She said: ‘I witnessed, time and again, the indignities heaped upon families at the worst possible time: the double whammy of bereavement coupled with the misery of withholding hugs from those who desperately needed them.’

Mary added that she and her colleagues have seen a range of different stories, all ‘drenched of grief’, over the pandemic.

She said: ‘We all felt completely helpless watching those who were struggling - and sometimes collapsing - with very visceral grief. There was often no one to hold them as they buckled.

‘Most poignant of all, in my opinion, was that many widows and widowers (often but not always elderly) were going back home to an empty house on the very worst day of their life, because their family had to leave the area immediately as no wake or household mixing were permitted.

‘We all heard heart-wrenching stories from relatives: of care home residents and hospital inpatients left without visitors, of families having to choose which family member got the chance to accompany dad into hospital for the last time, of not being allowed onto wards to say goodbye.’

While she emphasised that the crematorium restrictions were designed to keep everyone safe, Mary said that she would often cry in her car after the ceremonies ‘from the sheer sadness of it all’ - and that she is ‘certainly not alone in that’.

Mary said: ‘Imagine being in the chapel witnessing the heartbreak of a young couple who were holding the coffin of their stillborn baby in their arms.

‘Both sets of grandparents had to sit a couple of rows away.

‘I defy anyone to witness that and not feel overwhelmed, or to walk away from that family without a stone in their heart.’

Mary also highlighted the hard work and sacrifices made by the celebrant community through an extremely difficult time, pointing out that some celebrants were unable to properly say goodbye to their own loved ones lost during the last 22 months yet ‘gave their all to help others to do so.’

She added: ‘Because of the stringent measures during May 2020, we witnessed countless scenes of abject misery at funerals for people from babies to centenarians; for cancer sufferers, victims of a heart attack, Covid, road traffic accidents and suicides.

‘The levels of heartbreak and raw, visceral anguish was made worse by the restrictions.

‘Images like these stay with celebrants and officiants. We are decent, compassionate people - we couldn’t do this work if we were not.’

Readers reflected back on what they were doing in May 2020 while the boozy garden party took place at Downing Street.

Kevin Knight said: ‘I was burying my dad, helping my mum who’d just lost her husband, whilst going through chemotherapy. You know, just an average year.’

Patrick J. Furlong said at the time, he was celebrating his 41st birthday by himself: ‘Not seeing anyone that wasn’t via a Zoom meeting. Practically being a hermit.’

Pat Dawton added that she was ‘trying to stay alive’, while Michael Charlton remembers being ‘locked down, in isolation’.

Sandy Wieler was also ‘home alone’, and Kelly Truscott remembers having a Zoom party for her sister’s 30th birthday.

Muriel Walden was ‘staying indoors’, as was Carla Michelle, who said she was ‘staying home and sticking to the so-called rules.

‘And now I feel foolish.’

Heidi Badnell has been shielding since early 2020, and says as an extremely clinically vulnerable person, ‘staying alive is the main objective.’

She added: ‘No birthday celebrations for two years and won’t be this year either.

‘Basically in four walls with my children trying to keep them and me safe.’

Karen Storey Amey said in May 2020, she was ‘not having a birthday party for then 10 year old’.

Kelly Arnold said she was ‘probably going to work and looking after dementia patients in a care home because it’s 24 hour care.

‘Putting myself at risk and still stayed safe until now.’

However, some said they are not bothered by the Downing Street lockdown parties.

When asked about the news, Jill Ericson commented: ‘Who cares. Millions broke the rules. So what’s the problem, leave the man alone.’

Lynne Jackson said: ‘About time we moved on from these stories and worry more about what really matters, past is past and can’t be changed.’

While Leanda Walker said: ‘Give it a rest, it was last year, move on [...] stop raking up the past and move forward’, BeKeey BD disagreed, saying: ‘It matters to the people who couldn’t be with loved ones when they died alone.’

Some commenters said that they chose not to follow the rules set out to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Dan Cooke said he was seeing friends and family, ‘travelling across the country to see them.

‘Not listening to lockdowns as from day one I didn’t care.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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