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Photography Ethan Wilkinson

People fined for lockdown parties want their money back

We speak to three people – including one who was charged £10,000 for an outdoor snowball fight – about their COVID fines, and why the police still won’t let them off

On October 30th 2020, 23-year-old Callum Harrison went out for drinks in Newcastle to celebrate his housemate’s birthday, before heading back to his house with a few extra friends. He was fined £100.

On February 8th 2021, 22-year-old George Avery had three people from outside his household visiting his home in Newcastle when the police knocked on his door. He was fined £100.

On January 14th 2021, 24-year-old Xen Watts shared a Facebook event – which he had made as a joke – proposing a snowball fight on Woodhouse Moor in Leeds. Unfortunately for him, over 100 people turned up. He was issued a fine of £10,000.

On May 20th 2020, Boris Johnson allegedly hosted around 40 Downing Street staff for drinks in his back garden to “make the most of the lovely weather”. Over 100 people were invited and asked to bring their own booze. This is just one instance out of thirteen alleged lockdown parties held at Downing Street. As of yet, he has not been fined a single penny.

The steady stream of allegations of lockdown parties held at No. 10 comes as no surprise. Tory ministers – Johnson especially – have always thought the rules don’t apply to them. Even when Johnson was a teenager he displayed the same cavalier attitude towards the rules, with his Etonian housemaster writing in one school report: “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

Rule-breaking is one thing. But what makes the allegations infinitely more maddening is the fact that the British police had no qualms about stringently punishing anyone else who broke the rules over the course of the pandemic. Two women in Derby were fined £200 each for attempting to go on a walk together. A pub landlord was fined £1,000 after his customers leapt up from their seats to celebrate a football goal, as the rules at the time stipulated that people had to sit down inside pubs. Sickeningly, a homeless man was arrested for being outside “without reasonable excuse”.

It's also jarring to think that 371 people were hit with a maximum fine of £10,000. It's a hefty figure, especially given that the average UK salary is £25,971. "I didn't pay it," says Watts. "I just ignored it."

The recent news about the Downing Street parties is a bitter pill to swallow for those who have already paid their fines. “It’s a kick in the teeth,” Avery tells Dazed. “The people that are writing the rules aren’t even following the rules.” He reveals that he recently emailed the police requesting a refund for his fine in light of the news about the parties at Downing Street – but his request was denied.

Harrison feels similarly. “I've not had a great impression of the government the whole time during COVID-19. I think they’ve done a really bad job of dealing with it. This just adds insult to injury really,” he says. He adds that he’s past the point of wanting a refund: “it’s more about the principle [...] the people who were supposed to set the example, haven’t followed the example.”

“I think that what's been leaked is probably just the tip of the iceberg,” Watts adds. “As long as they’re fined and punished in the same way that we’ve been then I’ll be fine. If they manage to get away with it, even though it’s obvious that it happened, then I’ll be a bit miffed off."

Sue Gray, the civil servant tasked with investigating the Downing Street parties, certainly has her work cut out for her. Gray – who has already become the subject of hundreds of memes – is set to establish "a general understanding of the nature" of the gatherings that took place at Downing Street and ascertain whether any "individual disciplinary action" should be taken. But crucially, she cannot rule on whether lockdown laws were broken. So who does? Who actually doles out the punishment? Who does the buck stop with, to ensure that ministers don’t just get away with it?

In Britain, it’s up to the prime minister to decide how other ministers should be punished – meaning that, farcically, Johnson will decide his own fate. “Any judgement on the conduct of Boris Johnson goes to... Boris Johnson,” tweeted Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner. “He has managed to make himself judge and jury even though he is the man in the dock."

Perhaps the best outcome – the one that Watts is hoping for – would be to hold Johnson and any other offending parties to account, and treat them in the same way that civilians have been treated over the course of the pandemic. But this is optimistic. Realistically, if Johnson himself is “judge and jury”, the chances of that happening are slim to none.

So if the Teflon Tories do end up getting away with it, should we then reimburse those who received (and paid) COVID fines? “100 per cent,” says Watts. “Absolutely.”