With Wednesday’s publication of the Sue Gray report into Downing Street parties, Boris Johnson faces renewed questions about his role in Partygate. The senior civil servant tasked with investigating the 16 purported gatherings that occurred in Number 10 during COVID-19 restrictions – 12 of which were later investigated by the Metropolitan Police – says that “senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture”. More than 50 fixed penalty notices have been issued, though Johnson himself only received a single £50 fine for a 56th birthday party he held in June 2021.
If this all sounds deeply unfair to you, imagine being one of the university students who were hit with fines – some totalling thousands of pounds – as a result of breaching lockdown rules for similar gatherings. Senior politicians at the time even blamed students for the country’s second COVID-19 spike, with some universities resorting to fencing off halls of residence to stop young people from leaving.
In reality, just a week after frustrated Manchester University students tore down the temporary walls around their accommodation, Boris Johnson was photographed raising a glass to Number 10 colleagues in an apparent extension of the now-notorious “Wine-Time Fridays” that took place throughout the pandemic.
An FOI report by the Daily Express suggests that more than 8,000 fines were given to uni students for breaching lockdown rules, totalling £680,000 in fees. In contrast to Johnson’s £50 fixed penalty notice, one Nottingham University student received a £10,000 fine after holding a birthday party in October 2020.
Sorcha Leveche, who studied at Warwick University during the pandemic, received a £100 fine after attending a birthday party along with nine other people in February 2021. Three police officers showed up at the property to issue the fine, which was double the fine that Johnson was issued by the Metropolitan Police.
Leveche says that Johnson’s comparatively paltry fine was a “joke”. “Students can be on loans or just generally not have the money,” she told VICE. “But I’m not surprised they got away with it.” She added that the overall lack of consequence for Partygate compared to students like herself was “clearly unfair” because “students partying in a student town at university involves putting less people at risk than all the prime ministers and ministers who went to parties – obviously, they see much more people than we do”.
Elliot Hunt, a Bristol University student, made national headlines in December 2020 after being fined £175 – more than three times what Johnson was fined – for singing Christmas music with other people in his student accommodation who were not part of his “bubble”. The fine, which was issued by his university, was originally £250 – but he was able to reduce it by £75 following an appeal. Because he could not afford the fine, he crowdfunded the money via GoFundMe.
He told VICE “wasn’t happy” with the Met for taking so long to investigate the Downing Street parties. “I honestly was quite shocked that there was even a question as to whether or not they’d get they’d get punished for having these sort of garden parties,” he says. “I was kind of hoping that they’d be fined a bit more, because obviously £10,000 for a student is a lot more than £10,000 to an employee.”
Hunt told VICE that he was frustrated that Downing Street staff weren’t, in his opinion, fined “proportionately”, and said that he feels students have been unfairly scapegoated. “Students got pinned with a lot of the blame for a lot of these parties, while the people who were making the rules and propagating a lot of these myths, were actually breaking them just as much as us, just in private – and they can get away with it,” he says.
Meanwhile, Glasgow University student Jonny – who asked to use his first name only to protect his privacy – was issued a £60 fine by police after having a group of friends round his flat. He said that they were previously meeting up outside, which was allowed under guidelines at the time, but it was getting cold. Jonny doesn’t think his fine or punishment was unfair, but says that he’d like “everyone to be held to the same standards”.
“I believe Boris only getting one fine isn’t a fair outcome if he had been to other events as well. I’m sure I would have received further fines had I been at other gatherings,” he says. “From my experience, the police treated our situation fairly based on the fact we were breaking the rules – but it would be disappointing if others were able to get away with lesser fines for doing the same thing.” He added that he wants those involved in Partygate to issue a public apology, “given they were the ones setting out the rules for us to begin with”.
One person who has actively sought to get his fine refunded in the wake of Partygate is Callum Harrison. The 23-year-old was in his final year of study at Newcastle University when he was issued by police with a £100 fine for hosting a house party. According to Harrison, he lived in an eight-person flat, and had two extra people over. When approached by VICE for comment, he described the £50 fine Johnson was issued as a “complete joke”.
“He’s got away with murder multiple times now,” he says. “It just shows how little respect the government have for the people of this country. As I’ve said multiple times, I think he should have gone a long time ago because of what he’s done.”
Harrison adds that its “very clear” that its “one rule for them and one rule for us”, and says that Johnson “getting off lightly” is deeply unfair on all the other people who were issued with fines for similar offences during the lockdown period. When he first received the fine, he was happy to “take the consequences” of his actions, but now thinks that the fines paid by him and other members of the public should be refunded, with the money instead going to charity.
“I’m not fussed about the money, it’s more about the principle,” he explains. “The government should set examples for the rest of the population. It’s a complete disgrace.”
It isn’t just a handful of students who feel this way. In June of 2021, the National Union of Students (NUS) described the fines students received during lockdown as “obscene”. A spokesperson for the National Union of Students (NUS) told VICE: “The injustice is simply astounding. The vast majority of students actually followed the government’s rules on mass gatherings in order to protect their friends, families and communities, and the small minority who didn’t were punished. Resultantly, we have seen huge increases in the number of students who reported their mental health had worsened, with isolation frequently cited as a common cause.”
“When it come to this government’s continued failings, this is the tip of the iceberg. The government must come clean on publish all relevant details of these incidents.”
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