At 1.20am on 18 December last year, Jackie Green got a call from the hospital where her 86-year-old mother, Beryl Harris, had contracted Covid on the ward. “And they were calling to tell me she had passed away,” Green said, her voice breaking as she spoke. “When I put the phone down I just sat and howled. The pain was just incredible. Mum was my only relative.”
After the call ended, she said, “I just sat there. I couldn’t move for probably two hours.” Friends called but “nobody can say anything or do anything to make it feel any better. Her death just seemed so unnecessary, and pointless.” Green, who lives on her own, spent the evening of the 18th – and Christmas – alone at home.
The same evening, staff in Downing Street attended a Christmas party in spite of official rules that said such gatherings were not allowed. They played party games and distributed secret Santa presents. When the news broke that the party had happened, the government denied it. Now a video has emerged of aides laughing about how they would deal with questions about the subject.
“This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced,” the prime minister’s then press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said in the video, first reported by ITV. She also warned others present: “This is recorded.” Another aide joked: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.”
“When I first watched the clip I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing,” Green said. “It took a while, several watches, for it to sink in. Obviously anger was my primary emotion. That they just didn’t care. It was just a joke to them.”
She felt “disbelief at how people could behave like that. It was just absolutely extraordinary. These people are supposed to be leading this country.” She said she was appalled that “they would have the party in the first place, that the rules didn’t apply to them and they could do exactly what they wanted – but also think it was funny afterwards.”
Green’s response is indicative of growing public anger over the party, first reported by the Daily Mirror, and subsequent attempts by the government to say it didn’t happen or that rules were followed at all times in No 10. Sources have told the Guardian, Mirror, BBC and other outlets that dozens of people were packed tightly at the party, and that food and drink was served.
Green, who is 59 and works in communications, had hoped to spend Christmas with her mum. “The whole thing was exacerbated by the fact that I hadn’t seen Mum since the February before,” Green said. “I spoke to her every day on the telephone for an hour. Mum was shielding because she was so frightened of Covid. She was very, very careful. That all seems for nothing now, the fact that I didn’t see her and she died on her own.”
Harris had gone into hospital for a blood transfusion, a procedure deemed to be fairly routine. “I wasn’t really very worried about her,” Green said. But just before she was due to be discharged, she tested positive for coronavirus. “She was extremely worried and frightened. She kept saying: ‘I don’t want to die’.”
Throughout the pandemic Green, who lives in London, had longed to see her mother in Warwickshire, but both had agreed it was important to follow the rules to limit the spread of the virus. “Even if I’d wanted to break the rules, she wouldn’t have let me,” Green said. “She was incredibly lonely during that 10 months when I couldn’t get over to see her. But she was adamant that she wanted to follow those rules.”
Green remembered her mother as “lovely” with “a great sense of humour, sometimes without really realising it. She was always very smartly dressed, she wouldn’t leave the house without being absolutely immaculate. She just loved having fun, really.”
She had been on her own since the death of her husband, Green’s stepfather, from vascular dementia at the age of 78. “Mum was really just recovering from that and regaining her zest for life,” Green said. “She wanted to live. And it doesn’t matter that she was 86, she was still entitled to live her life.”
She said the leaked Downing Street video had left her determined to tell the story of her mother’s death, and the appalling circumstances in which she had to grieve her. “If they had been in my position, I wonder how they would have reacted then,” she said. “Certainly not like that.”