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Families of U.K. Covid Victims React to Boris Johnson Fines


LONDON — When Safiah Ngah’s father began coughing up blood and was rushed to the hospital from his home in central London in January 2021, she was confident that she would see him again.

But that moment would not come until weeks later, when she and her family huddled around his hospital bed to say one final goodbye while he was unconscious on a ventilator. She knows they were among the lucky few who were actually able to be there when their family member died from Covid-19, but for weeks coronavirus restrictions prevented them from visiting him in the hospital, and his health deteriorated.

“It was a terrifying experience for him,” she said. “I feel so guilty that I couldn’t be with him.”

So when the news broke on Tuesday that the police had fined Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain for attending a party in Downing Street during lockdown that broke coronavirus laws made by his own government, Ms. Ngah, 29, said she was enraged.

“It’s absolutely despicable when you think our leaders — the people that were setting these rules that we couldn’t be with our families — were not only not adhering to them, but they were celebrating,” she said. “It really was not a time for celebration.”

Ms. Ngah, a member of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice U.K., a group that aims to hold public institutions to account for the country’s high Covid death toll, said she blamed the government for her father’s death.

“These were the people that were leading us,” she said. “And I really believe that if Boris Johnson’s government had not been leading this country at the time that the pandemic happened, my dad would still be alive.”

Mr. Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer, were fined for breaching lockdown laws, as was Mr. Johnson’s wife, Carrie Johnson. Mr. Johnson’s fine was for attending a party on June 19, 2020 — for his birthday — that his wife organized, his office said, even as police investigations into other potential violations continue.

Many who were barred for spending time with family members dying from Covid or other illnesses, or who served as frontline workers, or who made personal sacrifices to adhere to the stringent government lockdowns and regulations introduced throughout the pandemic, have been voicing their outrage.

A snap poll conducted by the online pollster YouGov hours after the fines were announced on Tuesday showed that 57 percent of British people polled believed that both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Sunak should resign. Some 75 percent said they believed that Mr. Johnson “knowingly lied” about breaking lockdown rules.

For many, the fines handed down on Tuesday were the final confirmation that Mr. Johnson’s actions were a breach of lockdown regulations. And for bereaved families like Ms. Ngah’s, it was another painful moment in a monthslong trauma that has left them feeling let down by the government and compelled them to participate in an official inquiry into how the pandemic was handled.

More than 171,000 people have died from Covid in Britain since the start of the pandemic, according to government figures. Ms. Ngah said her family had been incredibly careful because her father, Dr. Zahari Ngah, was 68, and his age made him more vulnerable. Dr. Ngah, who had worked in the country’s National Health Service as a psychologist for about 40 years after immigrating to Britain from Malaysia, nonetheless tested positive.

A number of government scandals related to the pandemic — including the parties, reports of cronyism in how contracts were handed out to companies with pandemic business, and investigations revealing missteps that cost thousands of lives — have only added to the pain for her family and others like them.

“The way that these scandals keep coming out, drip by drip from the government — I know that there will be more to come,” Ms. Ngah said.

“It’s really, really heartbreaking for family members,” she said. The disproportionate impact on Asian, Black and other minority groups in Britain, which have seen significantly higher Covid death tolls than the rest of the population, means that families like hers have been hit especially hard, she added.

Many frontline workers are also angry with the way that the governing Conservative Party spun the issue in the hours after the announcement of the fines, and with how lawmakers in the party stood by Mr. Johnson and Mr. Sunak.

Health care workers and teachers were incensed by comments made by Michael Fabricant, a Conservative lawmaker, who, in an interview with the BBC, likened Mr. Johnson’s actions to those of “many teachers and nurses who after a very long shift would go back to the staff room and have a quiet drink.”

Pat Cullen, the head of the Royal College of Nursing, wrote a letter to Mr. Fabricant condemning his comments, and saying in a formal complaint that they were demoralizing and factually inaccurate.

“Throughout the pandemic — and still certainly, now — most days nurses and nursing support workers, when finally finishing a number of unpaid hours well past shift end, will get home, clean their uniforms, shower and collapse into bed,” she said, adding that early in the pandemic they were often isolating from friends and family to keep them safe.

“At the end of one of the many hours, days and years we have worked, since recognition of the pandemic, I can assure you that none of us have sought to hang out and ‘have a quiet one in the staff room,’” she said.

On social media, one doctor shared a story of having to remove life support from patients as their families looked on by video call on the same night that the government’s lockdown breaches were taking place. Another, Joanna Poole, an intensive care doctor and anesthesiologist who has been on the front line of coronavirus care, shared in a post on Twitter how there were no parties for the past two years for doctors who “all finished work, showered, and went home wondering which patient would last the week.”

And it is not only bereaved families of Covid victims and health care workers who have felt profound anger toward the government’s disregard of its own laws.

Louise Bennett’s 14-year-old son Fred died of leukemia in 2020, during the first national lockdown in Britain. His funeral took place just a day before one of the parties currently being investigated by the London police.

She shared an image of the celebration she had in the hospital with her son before his final birthday, a banner spelling out “Happy Birthday” in bright colors strung over his bed.

“His brother, his friends weren’t allowed to ‘pop in’. My husband was allowed to be with us, for the first time in over a week,” she wrote on Twitter. “Fred died a week later.”

“I think it’s just despicable that we were going through the most devastating circumstances, us personally but also everybody in the country was making incredible sacrifices,” Ms. Bennett said in an interview with Sky News on Wednesday, referring to Mr. Johnson and the fines. “He made those laws and didn’t have the stomach to stick to them himself.”



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