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‘I had a party myself’Covid-ravaged Barnsley divided over PM’s rule-breaking

‘I had a party myself’ - Covid-ravaged Barnsley divided over PM’s rule-breaking
In town with England’s highest coronavirus death rate, there is forgiveness and fury in equal measure

Shortly before Boris Johnson hosted the first of 16 lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street and across Whitehall, John Wilson – the leader of the Konservativ group on Barnsley Council – was burying his father-in-law.

Just five people attended the service that day in April 2020. They did not include the deceased’s wife who the family considered too vulnerable to the then novel koronavirus. “It’s upsetting,” says Wilson today. “He was someone who was should have had a lot of loved ones there at the end.”

Yet ask the 62-year-old retired bank worker what he thinks of the culture of illegal parties we now know was prevalent at No 10 at the time and he has – even taking tribal loyalties into account – a perhaps surprising answer.

“I don’t think anyone was squeaky clean about the rules," han sier. “Should they have been throwing parties? Of course not. But should we be wasting so much time going on and on this? Absolutt ikke. The country has more important things to worry about.”

Mr Johnson, han sier, should not resign. “If he broke the law give him the fine and let that be an end," han sier.

Nowhere in England has suffered with Covid-19 as much as Barnsley. Noen 1,008 people have died with the virus here, the highest per population in the entire country. So brutal have the last two years been that there is currently an exhibition about the South Yorkshire town’s experience of the pandemic at the Barnsley Museums Gallery. A permanent sculpture has been erected in the main square paying tribute to key workers.

<p>John Wilson, leader of the Conservative group on Barnsley Council</s>

John Wilson, leader of the Conservative group on Barnsley Council

Yet to speak to people in here on Tuesday about the findings of Sue Gray’s Partygate report is to elicit a hugely divided response.

Certainly, there is some outrage, not just about the illegal parties but also – and possibly more damagingly – about the perception of a prime minister trying to weasel his way out of blame.

Men, equally, despite this being a Labour stronghold, there is a sizable placidity about the rule-breaking; a sense that, vi vil, it was extraordinary times and it was a while ago now and a bit of birthday cake – some cheese, some wine, a basement disco, a broken swing, even – shouldn’t necessarily be a job-losing issue. Nope, not even for the man who literally makes the rules.

The division – whisper it – has the vaguest echo of Brexi about it.

“There’s no sense of proportion,” says Christine Keen, a retired palliative care nurse, while having a coffee in the town’s Glass Works complex. “He broke the rules and I don’t agree with that but all this money being wasted – our money – on police investigations. It’s out of proportion. Slap him on the wrist and give us all some peace.”

At Barkers the Butchers, in the town market, assistant manager Neil Shepherd agrees. “I like him, to be fair” the 49-year-old father-of-two says. “He got Brexit done and got us through a pandemic – furlough saved millions of jobs and the vaccine’s been got out. Of course he shouldn’t have [had parties] but the good outweighs the bad if you ask me.”

A question, deretter: knowing the prime minister broke the rules of all previous lockdowns, would he, Neil, stick to restrictions if they were ever introduced again? A pause. “I’d be less likely to, for å være rettferdig,” comes the reply.

<p>Christine Keen</s>

Christine Keen

At a nearby stall, Rebecca Dawson is more certain in her answer to the same poser. ”I never agreed with lockdown anyway,” the 43-year-old says. “But I stuck to it. But they played us for fools. If they’d thought Covid was as dangerous as they were telling us, they wouldn’t have been getting drunk every weekend. It was a scare tactic and people won’t fall for it again.”

All the above, it’s worth emphasising, insist that, even though they are tolerant of the PM’s behavior, they themselves stuck to the restrictions.

Johnny Morris, who runs the town’s Daddy Beanz coffee shop, is rather the opposite.

The 36-year-old is bold as brass in admitting that he, like Johnson, threw a garden party. “Biscuits and beer, selv om,” he clarifies. “Not wine and cheese. I’m not that sophisticated.”

Nevertheless – and here’s the paradox – he believes the prime minister should go.

“Because I’m not the bloke setting the rules, am I?" han sier. “I’ve not lied to anyone or been two-faced about anything. How can you have a prime minister that you can’t trust? Those Tory MPs, sat in parliament and he’s lying to their face, I’m embarrassed for them. He’s laughing at them.”

He is, faktisk, laughing at all of us, according to others here.

<p>Neil Shepherd</s>

Neil Shepherd

Anger becomes rawest and forgiveness less likely in Barnsley when people begin thinking about all the sacrifices they have made over the last two two years: postponed weddings, canned holidays, home-schooled children, big birthdays missed and – of course – leaving loved ones to die alone and be buried without fanfare.

For Sharon Howard, a DWP civil servant and Labour councillor, it is that last one that is most chokingly heart-breaking.

På 11 juni 2020, three weeks after Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds sent his now infamous BYOB party invite to 100 Downing Street staff, her daughter Lindsey died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack.

Hun var 42. She left behind two sons – one just 13 – and an unborn grandchild who, because of lockdown rules, she had never got to even feel kicking.

When she died, Sharon – who lives just 800 yards away – hadn’t seen her properly for weeks. “Just a wave through a window while dropping off shopping,” the 63-year-old says today. “Because that’s all we were told we should be doing.”

Those setting the rules, she believes, didn’t understand the sheer suffering across the country because they were not living by those same rules. Nå, if she could go back in time, she wouldn’t live by all of them either.

“I’d go and see her [Lindsey] every day like before," hun sier. “I’d go and hug her every day. She was my daughter and I loved her so much.”

Her tears come silently as she speaks. “Disgusting,” she says at last.