The Downing St garden party May 2020 & the people Boris Johnson didn’t know existed

Keith Flett examines what was happening in London when the government partied.


This blog post was originally posted here.

I generally live in Tottenham, North London, in a flat. I’m not usually in much, being out at work in central London, researching in the British Library, or in the pub. From March 2020 none of those were open. Rather than sit in the flat all day, and also because the COVID rates in some London Boroughs were very high in this period (well before vaccines) I spent the time in the rather more spacious central Cardiff house of my partner Megan.

In fact I was there for 122 days returning to Tottenham on July 17 2020. During that time I went out only to shop or into the garden and saw only Megan and the cat in person. It was very different to normal. When I returned to North London several of my neighbours expressed relief assuming I had in the meantime perished, and one had died – a nurse at the nearby North Middlesex hospital.

No doubt there are many, many stories like this and often very much more significant.

The situation in Tottenham had indeed been very bad.

Hesketh Benoit, basketball coach for the London Borough of Haringey, wrote in the Huffington Post about 37 people he knew in the Tottenham area who died of COVID-19 during April and May 2020. Not just a statistic but real people he and others in the community knew.

On 24th July 2020 the ONS published updated statistics for COVID-19 deaths to the end of June 2020.

A main point was:

Of the 10 local authorities with the highest age-standardised mortality rates for deaths involving COVID-19 over this period, nine were London Boroughs; Brent had the highest overall age-standardised rate with 216.6 deaths per 100,000 people, followed by Newham (201.6 deaths per 100,000 people) and Haringey (185.1 deaths per 100,000 people).

Local Authorities in these areas (and elsewhere) worked very hard to address this situation. Their reward was to be starved of necessary funds.

When Henry Mayhew started the series of social investigations into the London working-class in 1849 that was to become London Labour and the London Poor he laid out a prospectus in the Morning Chronicle. He wrote of investigating the ‘large and comparatively unknown body of people’ who comprised the labouring poor who lived in slum housing often in insanitary conditions with at best uncertain employment.

He set a pattern that has emerged at times of crisis since.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 revealing a Government and President in George W Bush that was not only unprepared to deal with it but had reduced funding previously for measures that might have helped, the  Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Michael Brown said, “We’re seeing people that we didn’t know exist’.

The publication of details, broken down to local authority areas, by the Office of National Statistics of all COVID-19 deaths from March 1st to April 17th also appeared. This wasn’t some exercise in constructing a league table of deaths-important though it is to record every death and value every life.

Rather it focused attention on where COVID-19 deaths had been particularly high and implicitly invited discussion of why this might be.

Of the 11 areas with the highest death rate everyone was in London.

The pattern of poverty, housing & health identified 171 years ago by Henry Mayhew in London’s poorest districts continued.

The highest UK COVID-19 mortality rates per 100,000 population in the UK were in the  London Boroughs of Newham 144.3, Brent 141.5, Hackney 127.4, Tower Hamlets 122.9 and Haringey 119.3.

Philip Glanville, the Mayor of Hackney, quoted in the Financial Times on the 2nd May 2020 argued that “the links between inequality, poverty, ethnicity and health” were the key to his Borough’s death rate of 127 per 100,000.

Meanwhile not caring or knowing about any of this, Boris Johnson and others had a party in the garden of 10 Downing St on Wednesday May 20 2020.

Its not going to be forgotten or forgiven in North London.

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