The heroes of Barnsley’s coronavirus pandemic are cast in bronze in the heart of the town centre. A nurse, a carer, a teacher, a volunteer and a police officer are depicted on the gleaming new sculpture, along with the words: “Barnsley’s fierce love holds you forever in its heart”.
Bereaved families were among the hundreds of people at the memorial’s unveiling in November. And in Barnsley many people are grieving. The South Yorkshire town has recorded more deaths from Covid-19 than anywhere else in the UK per head of population: a toll of 972 so far, but the number still rises.
The news that one of Boris Johnson’s top officials hosted a “bring your own booze” party in Downing Street in May 2020, when the UK was in the strictest stage of lockdown, was met with fury, dismay and cynicism in the town on Tuesday.
“It’s disgusting,” said Audrey Myers, 61, serving customers at Pickles fine foods. “It’s one rule for us and another for them. If you’ve got money and power you can do what you want.”
While appalled by the revelations, no one who spoke to the Guardian believed Johnson would face serious repercussions for allegedly attending the apparently lockdown-busting party. “I know what should happen,” said Myers. “He should resign. But he’s not going to. He will get away with it.”
She added: “It’s not fair but it doesn’t matter what I think – it’s not going to change anything.”
Mick Bishop, 59, is one of thousands of former Labour voters in South Yorkshire who ended years of political tradition and voted for Johnson’s Conservatives in December 2019.
He was furious about the No 10 garden party: “It’s disgusting. People aren’t going to stick to the rules when they hear stuff like that,” he said, although he added that it probably would not decide how he voted at the next general election.
Bishop, who has sold CDs and watches on Barnsley market for a decade, said the news would embolden people to drop their guard against Covid, just as the region’s infection rate passes the peak of the Omicron wave in London: “People aren’t wearing masks like they used to. If anyone challenges them they will say: ‘Boris Johnson does what he wants so I will.’”
Like many of the UK’s post-industrial towns, Barnsley has had a stubbornly high infection rate since the pandemic began. Coronavirus has thrived in places like Barnsley, with its multi-generational households and large number of public-facing workers.
The town currently has the seventh-highest infection rate in England, although the vaccination programme has mercifully slowed the risk of deaths and serious illness. Four more people have died of Covid in Barnsley since Christmas Day.
James Higginbottom, 24, lost his grandfather to coronavirus in October 2020. The 77-year-old was one of the more than 175,000 victims of Covid in the UK. Like thousands of people across the country, his family were not allowed to visit their dying relative in his final days. Their only contact was a daily update from “incredible” staff at Barnsley hospital, Higginbottom said, and a final painful telephone call between father and son.
“When you see revelations like [the Downing Street party] about the people making the rules flagrantly disregarding it – it’s disgusting, it’s disappointing,” he said.
Higginbottom, who was elected as Labour councillor last May, said he was dismayed that Johnson had not come clean about whether he attended the May 2020 party, as several witnesses have alleged: “This is not about politics. This is about people’s lives and people who are grieving and are rightfully angry about what’s going on.
“We have a saying in Barnsley: ‘Don’t piss on my shoes and tell me it’s raining’. That’s what it feels like the prime minister is doing.”
At Mike’s Cards in the market, Rebecca Dawson, 43, said she had always disagreed with the need for lockdown and that the Downing Street party proved that she was correct. “Boris having a party speaks volumes to how much they fear Covid. They weren’t exactly in fear of their lives, were they?”
Others said they were sick of the near-daily torrent of allegations about rule-breaking by members of the government. Some were supportive of Johnson – one market trader, who did not want to be named, praised the prime minister for doing a “superb job” – and blamed the media for supposedly whipping up a storm.
Stephen Price, the owner of E.B. Price & Son, which has sold fruit and vegetables in Barnsley for 65 years, said it was time for the media and public to move on from Covid rule-breaking controversies.
“If this had come out three months into the pandemic I would appreciate the uproar but I do feel it should be put to rest,” said Price, 68. However, he added, that did not mean a free pass for the prime minister: “I think he’s politically damaged at the moment. There’s been too many cases like this in recent months. The public are the ones who will ultimately decide [Johnson’s fate],” he said.