One rule for them. Another for the rest of us.
As U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his chief aide Dominic Cummings have discovered to their cost, with public opinion on a hair trigger for hypocrisy the charge of double standards is currently the most toxic in British politics.
Brexit mastermind Cummings has been a polarizing figure for years. But the revelations over the weekend that he apparently broke lockdown rules have gone down extremely badly with many Brits, regardless of where their political loyalties lie.
The PM defended the actions of his aide on Sunday, saying he acted “responsibly and legally,” apparently calculating that the furious political backlash would be worth it to retain the services of his most trusted adviser.
But it isn’t just in the U.K. that the perception of double standards for the powerful has ignited a sharp public reaction. Politicians and officials ignoring lockdown rules have irritated citizens right across Europe. Some of them have decided that asking for forgiveness is a better strategy than trying to tough it out.
Austria’s President Alexander Van der Bellen apologized on Sunday after he and his wife were caught by police breaking curfew rules at a restaurant.
The country’s coronavirus restrictions include the mandatory closing of restaurants and bars at 11 p.m., but police said the couple still had drinks at their table after midnight Van der Bellen said on Twitter that he had gone out to eat for the first time since lockdown began with his wife and two friends.
“We lost track of the time while chatting and unfortunately overlooked the hour,” he wrote. “I am sincerely sorry. It was a mistake. If the restaurant host suffers any damage from this, I will take responsibility for it.”
Van der Bellen’s transgression came days after Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was forced to apologize for appearing unmasked among a crowd of people in a village near the German border.
“There are certain things that you cannot plan,” Kurz said later, acknowledging that some people had failed to practice social distancing.
Earlier this month in Germany, the liberal FDP party leader Christian Lindner was caught hugging a friend outside Borchardt, a restaurant that is a favorite of the Berlin elite.
After the incident was widely reported in German media, Lindner apologized on Twitter.
“The spontaneous farewell hug on Friday was a mistake, as they unfortunately occur among friends after a private evening,” he said. “It was not intentional … in the end we are all human. I’m sorry!”
Lindner was not the first German politician to violate coronavirus rules.
Earlier, Saxony’s state premier Michael Kretschmer was spotted engaging in a debate with protesters in Dresden without wearing a face mask, while Thuringia’s state premier Bodo Ramelow admitted to having broken the rules when he attended the funeral of a neighbor. Not every politician has broken the rules when it comes to funerals. It was revealed on Monday that the mother of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte died on May 13 but he was unable to visit her in her final weeks.
Meanwhile in Romania, thousands of people attended the funeral of the Archbishop Pimen Zainea of Suceava and Radauti last week.
Some mourners even kissed the coffin.
According to local media, the Romanian Orthodox Church had previously obtained special approval from the Department for Emergencies and the National Institute of Public Health.
Some Romanians reacted angrily to the news because COVID-19 rules in the country mandated that funerals can go ahead only with a maximum of eight attendees.
Last month in Poland, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and many other officials from the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the death of the country’s then president Lech Kaczyński in a plane crash in 2010.
At the wreath-laying ceremony, neither the prime minister nor the other officials were wearing face masks or following social distancing guidelines.
The same day, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS and twin brother of Lech, was taken by limousine to a Warsaw cemetery at a time when graveyards were closed for regular citizens. Popular discontent with the apparent double standard found voice in a satirical song poking fun at Kaczyński called “Your pain is greater than mine.” It was subsequently dropped from the playlist of a government controlled radio station in what some in the country see as an act of censorship.
In yet another controversial incident, the prime minister last week ate at a newly reopened restaurant without maintaining the 1.5-meter social distancing rule.
He explained over the weekend that “a certain distance is suggested but not required” by the government’s coronavirus rules, but was later contradicted by a government spokesman who said Morawiecki had been “misinformed” about the guidelines.
Spanish Vice President Pablo Iglesias was criticized in March for breaking self isolation recommendations and turning up to government meetings. Iglesias’s partner, Equality Minister Irene Montero, had tested positive for the coronavirus and was in quarantine at the time, leading to worries that Iglesias could inadvertently infect other members of the government at the weekly meetings.
In April he was also censured for ignoring government recommendations on face masks and going to his local supermarket without one.
And last week, the funeral of Julio Anguita, former leader of the Communist Party of Spain, drew thousands of people to the Spanish city of Córdoba. Anguita, who served as mayor of Córdoba from 1979 to 1986, died unexpectedly of a heart attack on May 16.
Scenes of the crowds attending his funeral prompted considerable outrage among many Spaniards who complained that social distancing was not adhered to at the large ceremony. Many ordinary people who have died in recent weeks had to be buried in solitude, with family member unable to attend.
Jan Cienski contributed reporting.