Partygate shows how out of touch politicians really are

Chris Hallam is a partner at CMS Law

The opening of the Elizabeth Line last month reminded us – to the point that it was necessary – that politicians don’t need to be told twice to don hard hats and high visibility if there is has a photoshoot planned.

It’s acting, of course, an adult dress-up game to show that they have the “common touch”.

Unfortunately, as the recent release of Sue Gray’s report on the “Partygate” affair revealed, the difference between dressing up as a construction worker and being one has never been starker.

Back to 2020.

Extreme Restrictions

It seems a distant memory now, and for most a time to forget, but it was a time when the country was in lockdown and seeing thousands of COVID deaths per week. A time when most people were required to work from home – and for those unable to, notably construction workers, a time of extreme workplace restrictions to ensure that risk spread of the virus through personal contact was minimized.

We recall the different iterations of the CLC Site Operating Procedures with their requirement for staggered entry and exit times at sites, reduced numbers on site, strict hygiene protocols and severe limitations on mixing.

“If only the industry had followed the example set by our lawmakers in Downing Street, then all the laws could have been ignored, all this extra cost could have been avoided”

Essentially, a series of measures that have transformed a highly sociable industry that relies on human interaction into a significantly solitary activity, all to keep the cogs of the industry turning and to help prevent the collapse of the economy.

These measures have had a significant financial cost for the construction industry, customers and the supply chain. Projects have been cancelled, revenues have plummeted, profits have bled; some companies have not succeeded.

Mental health and wellbeing took a hammer blow as construction workers more accustomed to the hustle and bustle of activity on site struggled to cope with the relative isolation required by protocols.

If only we had known. If only the industry had followed the example set by our legislators in Downing Street, then all the laws could have been ignored, all this extra cost could have been avoided – all the personal torment and impact on well-being was unnecessary.

Of course, the industry didn’t.

The industry followed the laws – not just because they were the law, although that alone was reason enough for most people, but because of why we had those laws. They were to protect public health and minimize the spread of the virus which was killing thousands every week, ease the burden on an already overstretched NHS and help the country emerge from the catastrophic economic impact caused by the virus. In short, because it was the right thing to do – not just because it was the law.

Lawmakers celebrated

Lawmakers, however, did what they wanted, regardless of the law, and seemingly without any consideration for the impact on public health.

But, of course, the poor loves didn’t know they were breaking their own laws or letting off steam, or being ambushed by cake or the laws being silly, or any number of excuses floury foods that would cause the proverbial dog embarrassed enough to turn his nose up at a dish of freshly made homework.

We will never know how many people inside and outside Downing Street have fallen ill from the flagrant and persistent breaking of the law, or how many people have died after catching someone’s virus, or a contact of someone, who worked in Downing Street. We will never know if this could have been avoided if lawmakers had simply followed their own laws.

And then ?

So what happens next time?

What happens if a new, more severe or vaccine-evading variant emerges? What if we were faced with an entirely different pandemic? According to epidemiologists, it’s more a question of when than if.

If so, why should anyone be expected to comply with public health measures when the people creating those measures so blindly despise them? Of course, the construction industry – like most people – will comply.

The industry will do the right thing because it is ultimately populated by people who care about their colleagues, their community and their country. People who are mostly honest, responsible and respect the rule of law. Normal people. If only the same could be said for those in number 10.

Hopefully anyone occupying Downing Street in the times to come will learn from the past few years so that they and the construction industry are better prepared next time around.

Alice F. Ponder