While Boris Johnson and his staff partied at Christmas our hospitals suffered – we saw it for ourselves – Sophie Halle-Richards

In the run up to Christmas 2020, the Prime Minister and his staff enjoyed a series of frivolous parties in Downing Street involving alcohol, cheese boards, quizzes and speeches. At the same time, Greater Manchester had been placed into Tier 3 – scuppering any chances of my own festive work gatherings.

But that’s not what I’ll remember from that time of the pandemic. Just a few weeks later I was granted access to Oldham Hospital’s coronavirus intensive care ward. Any of the bitterness I’d clung on to about being locked inside evaporated as soon as I stepped on to the ward, which was full at the time.

While senior government officials allowed their staff to wind down and get drunk, clinical director Redmond Tully was gearing his staff up for yet another week of misery. He told me that the run up to Christmas 2020 had been one of the busiest and most unrelenting times for his team – who were giving every last piece of energy to save people’s lives.

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By the time I visited at the end of January, staff at Royal Oldham could barely walk such was the exhaustion. Most of them hadn’t even had time to sit down at work, let alone raise a glass or dine on cheese. I distinctly recall their determined foot dragging trudge, like soldiers who had been walking for thousands, knowing they had miles yet to go.

And for the families with relatives on the intensive care ward, Christmas hadn’t been a time for partying or celebration. Most of them weren’t even allowed to visit unless their loved one was about to die. Instead, I watched nurses diligently care for them as if they were their own flesh and blood.

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Many will have questioned the seemingly inhumane measures around hospital visitation during the pandemic, but they all obliged – knowing it was the right thing to protect each other. How betrayed they must feel knowing the very people who helped draw up those rules couldn’t be bothered to do the same.

The Prime Minister flanked by three members of staff, one wearing tinsel and another a Santa hat, at an event in December 2020

I’ll never forget the look of pain etched across the face of every doctor, nurse, clinician, assistant and porter I spoke to. Having to hold the hands of a dying patient because their parents, siblings, partner’s or grandparents weren’t able to. The only glimpse of familiarity I saw were the photos of their families at home pinned up on the walls around them.

As journalists we are taught to remain neutral, but I could hardly fight back tears when healthcare assistant, Jean Smith, told me how she would talk to patients as they lay unconscious. “Even though they’re sedated, in some far away place, I think some people know you’re there,” she said.

Redmond confided in me that he hadn’t even seen his own family during that first wave of the pandemic. He made the choice to move out of the home he shares with his wife Ella Claire, who was then pregnant, so that he did not bring the virus home to her. Five months passed before he was reunited with her and their newborn son of her.

I can only imagine how painful it will be for Redmond and his team to remember the sacrifices they made now the publication of Sue Gray’s report has laid bare how Boris Johnson and his staff were so brazenly doing the opposite.

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Redmond Tully and Dr Aneeq Rao discuss a patient’s care on the ward

On December 17, whilst infection rates were still rising in Oldham, a leaving did was held for a departing Downing Street official. Sue Gray’s report said: “A leaving event for two No 10 officials took place in No 10 in the Pillared Room. There were speeches, including from the Prime Minister and senior officials, and alcohol. Approximately 20 people attended.”

The following day, during a Downing Street Christmas party, officials and advisers reportedly made speeches, enjoyed a cheese board, drank together and exchanged Secret Santa gifts. Sue Gray’s report said a gathering in the No 10 press office lasted “several hours.”

She added: “Between 20 and 45 individuals attended over the course of the evening to celebrate the end of the year and Christmas. The event included a Secret Santa and an awards ceremony. There was alcohol and food.” The Metropolitan Police have since confirmed that Fixed Penalty Notices were issued to attendees of both events for breaches of Covid-19 regulations.

Speaking in the House of Commons this afternoon, the Prime Minister said he took full responsibility for the failings of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office. “I am humbled and I have learned a lesson,” he told parliament. I’m sure many people will be glad to finally see some accountability, but that “lesson” will have come far too late for those who gave up so much.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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