Liverpool’s deputy mayor has temporarily stepped down after video footage emerged of a gathering in her garden during the strictest phase of the coronavirus lockdown.
The Labour councillor Lynnie Hinnigan told the Liverpool Echo that the event for her 50th birthday was not a party, and that she had stayed away from family and friends.
Video clips, which appear to have been uploaded on to Instagram on 9 May, show 12 people gathered in Hinnigan’s garden, where a large number of chairs are laid out and bunting and balloons adorn the fences.
The Labour party said she had “voluntarily and temporarily” stepped down from her duties while the event being investigated.
Current lockdown measures, which were eased on 13 May, stipulate that only two people from different households can meet in outdoor settings – such as parks – as long as they stay more than 2 metres apart.
Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.
How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.
Is there evidence of coronavirus coming back in a second wave?
This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.
Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.
Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.
What are experts worried about?
Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.
The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.
In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.
The news of Hinnigan’s gathering comes after a series of political figures were accused of acting against public health advice.
On Thursday, Peter Gibson, the Conservative MP for Darlington, said he made a 250-mile journey on a train home while experiencing coronavirus symptoms in March, before the nationwide lockdown. He said he was advised to make the trip home by the MPs’ coronavirus helpline.
Meanwhile, Durham police concluded that the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, potentially broke lockdown rules by taking a 52-mile round trip from Durham to Barnard Castle on 12 April.
Hinnigan, who became one of three deputies to the Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson in 2018, told the Echo the event in her garden had been secretly arranged by her daughter, and family and friends had only come to drop off gifts.
“I really wasn’t aware that it was happening, it was genuinely a surprise,” she said. “Everyone is finding lockdown hard, not seeing family and friends, but everyone should still follow the rules, stay alert, stay safe and socially distance, which is exactly what I told my daughter and the reason I never left the house.
“I am sorry if this has hurt anyone as it was never mine or my daughter’s intention. Many other families in our city have struggled throughout this period, we still need to follow the guidance until we can meet face to face again.”
In a statement, councillor Ruth Bennett, the chief whip of the Liverpool Labour group, said: “We have received emails regarding Lynnie Hinnigan and can confirm that she is being investigated.
“In the meantime, she has, in agreement with the mayor, voluntarily and temporarily stepped down from her council roles with immediate effect during the investigation into her actions.”
Richard Kemp, the leader of Liverpool city council’s Liberal Democrat opposition, called for Hinnigan to resign. He said on Twitter: “Those of us in public life must set an example not find excuses.”
Earlier this month, the Liverpool Labour councillors Barry and Joann Kushner were referred to party whips after an image emerged of them relaxing with family members at their home in Allerton on the same day as the gathering in Hinnigan’s garden. On Thursday, Barry Kushner was suspended from his duties for two months by the Liverpool Labour group over the incident.
Under a cautious easing of the restrictions, Boris Johnson has announced that groups of up to six will be allowed to gather in gardens while keeping 2 metres apart from Monday.