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From the file

Chequers | In March 2020 Boris Johnson pre-recorded a broadcast in which he told the country to stay at home. Tortoise believes he then ignored his own advice by moving back and forth between London and Chequers

Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, prepares to greet Uhuru Kenyatta Kenya’s president, ahead of their bilateral meeting at Chequers, near Aylesbury, U.K., on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. As Kenya gears up for elections next year, most citizens are disenchanted with the direction the country is taking, with ballooning public debt, high living costs, rampant unemployment, the coronavirus pandemic and corruption among their main concerns, an opinion poll showed. Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The commuter

The commuter

Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, prepares to greet Uhuru Kenyatta Kenya’s president, ahead of their bilateral meeting at Chequers, near Aylesbury, U.K., on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. As Kenya gears up for elections next year, most citizens are disenchanted with the direction the country is taking, with ballooning public debt, high living costs, rampant unemployment, the coronavirus pandemic and corruption among their main concerns, an opinion poll showed. Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In March 2020 Boris Johnson pre-recorded a broadcast in which he told the country to stay at home. But Tortoise now believes that he then ignored his own advice by moving back and forth between London and Chequers

On 23 March 2020 Boris Johnson told the country: “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home. Because the critical thing we must do is stop the disease spreading between households.” He is now understood to have pre-recorded this broadcast and then moved, against his own freshly issued guidance, to his second home. Downing Street have refused repeatedly to deny to Tortoise that is what happened, and when pressed on this period again today at a lobby briefing, a spokesperson failed to give a clear answer.

Even so, more details emerged at the weekend:

  • Carrie Symonds, now Mrs Johnson, also travelled to Chequers twice after the prime minister announced lockdown on March 23. Having moved to Chequers on 20 March, she returned to Downing Street for one night on 24 March (to attend a medical scan in London), and then returned to Chequers before returning again to Downing Street on 28 March. 
  • The prime minister tested positive on 27 March, and Mrs Johnson began feeling unwell a few days later, disclosing on 4 April on Twitter that she had been in bed with mild covid symptoms for seven days. It is therefore likely they were both infectious with the virus throughout this period.
  • Chequers was forced to close on 28 March owing to Covid-related staff absences. It is understood more than one member of staff caught the virus shortly after the Johnsons. 

On Friday, we reported that Downing Street had admitted the prime minister and Mrs Johnson had been commuting between London and his countryside second home at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020. 

These are repeated and clear breaches of the rules – not by staffers, but by the prime minister and his wife. And they matter:

Only after a series of denials and obfuscations by the Number 10 press office and Carrie Johnson’s advisor has the truth started to emerge. For example: Mrs Johnson posted a photo to Instagram on 26 March. It showed her in Downing Street with her dog and was captioned “self-isolating isn’t so bad with this one”. So was she in self-isolation? No, we were told. “Self-isolation” meant something different then; it meant “minimising” social contact, not ceasing it as it does now. Also:

  • We were initially not told the truth about Mrs Johnson’s location. On Saturday, we were told she had spent the entire 20 March to 28 March period in Chequers and that any alleged sightings of Mrs Johnson in London or Downing Street specifically during that period were “categorically false and completely fabricated”. On Sunday, when pressed, Mrs Johnson’s representatives said she in fact did come to London on the 24 March, and stayed in Downing Street for the night. 
  • The location of Mrs Johnson was misreported at the time. Camilla Tominey, a Telegraph columnist and friend of Mrs Johnson, told ITV This Morning that week: “She’s in Camberwell with Dilyn the dog so she will not have any contact with the prime minister over the last few days.” In fact she had been between Chequers and Downing Street – and not in her Camberwell flat, as her friend had told the media.
  • Downing Street is refusing to answer the question of precisely how many times the prime minister moved between residences after his lockdown announcement.

A spokeswoman for Mrs Johnson said: “At that time, Mrs Johnson was heavily pregnant and had been placed in a vulnerable category and advised to minimise social contact. Mrs Johnson was careful to comply with the regulations and guidance in place to ensure both her own safety and that of others.” It is reasonable to feel some sympathy for Mrs Johnson in the circumstances, but it remains unclear why she would move to and from Chequers and spend time in Downing Street if the second home was considered safer.

For those working on the estate, it was the opposite. Johnson himself warned of the extremely high case numbers in London on 16 March. That Chequers was forced to close due to at least one Covid infection occurring shortly after the Johnsons’ visit suggests it is possible the couple put those working there at risk.

Look closely at partygate and the Chequers-Downing Street commute and a pattern emerges: of evasiveness, but also of redefining the rules to insist the bar for wrongdoing is found only at criminality. The justification offered for the movement of the prime minister and Mrs Johnson after lockdown came into force, for example – that lockdown did not become law until 1 pm on 26 March, and so “commuting” until then would be acceptable – is not how the rules were understood by the millions who complied with them, and who took their “simple instruction” to stay at home as effective immediately. 

As Westminster waits for Sue Gray’s findings, she should consider the finer details of this “commuting” part of her remit. It concerns not Downing Street staffers, but the prime minister himself – a prime minister who told the country to stay at home but ignored the instruction himself, putting the lives of those in his service at risk as a result.

Update

After publication of this article, a Number 10 spokesperson said “The house was not closed on 28th March as a result of covid related staff absences.”

Instead, Chequers was said to be closed because of hesitancy and anxiety on the part of staff about the Covid situation. It was a curious response that left unanswered how much staff anxiety had been caused by the prime minister and his partner shuttling between a Covid hotspot – London – and their place of work. 

Asked to confirm the timing of the trip Johnson is believed to have made to Chequers on 23 March 2020, Downing Street wouldn’t comment. Nor would his spokesperson deny that he moved to Chequers on the day he made his stay at home speech; that he and Mrs Johnson continued to make use of it after lockdown was announced; or that at least one staff member caught the virus around the same time as the Johnsons.

Next in this file

An open letter to Sue Gray

An open letter to Sue Gray

Tortoise believes that the prime minister travelled to Chequers on 23 March 2020, on the same day he announced the first lockdown. We’re asking Sue Gray to consider this as part of her investigation

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