Downing Street party: What Covid rules were broken? By Tom Edgington
BBC Reality Check
2 hours ago
Related Topics Reality Check Image source, Getty Images Prime Minister Boris Johnson has apologised for attending a party in the Downing Street garden during the first lockdown, but said he believed “implicitly that this was a work event”.
It is the latest in a number of alleged parties to have taken place under Covid restrictions, which are currently being investigated by senior civil servant Sue Gray.
What was the party? An email, sent to as many as 100 people in Downing Street, invited them to “socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening”.
Revealed by ITV News , the email was sent on behalf of Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds.
It is understood that about 30 people attended the event on 20 May 2020.Two eyewitnesses had already told the BBC they saw Mr Johnson and his wife Carrie there.
In his apology, Mr Johnson told MPs he went into the garden just after 18:00 to thank groups of staff and returned to his office 25 minutes later.He said that the event “could be said to fall technically within the guidance”.
The list of alleged government lockdown gatherings What were the Covid rules on 20 May 2020? Throughout the pandemic there has been a mixture of guidance and legal restrictions relating to behaviour likely to spread the virus.
Legal restrictions are underpinned by sanctions – where breaking the law could result in a fine or prosecution.Guidance – unless it’s also backed up in law – is not enforced by fines or court action, explains Stuart Nolan from the Law Society.
In terms of guidance :
On the day of the party the government’s own Twitter account summarised the guidance by saying that gatherings must be limited to two people outside.
But as with the law, the detailed guidance always allowed for people to work where that had to involve gathering with other people.
Mr Johnson told MPs that he “believed implicitly that this was a work event” and therefore it was technically within the guidance.
But by 20 May 2020 there was detailed guidance on what to do in offices and other similar settings.
When it came to workplace gatherings, the guidelines said: “Workers should try to minimise all meetings and other gatherings in the workplace.”
The ” working safely during coronavirus ” guidelines also said only “absolutely necessary participants should attend meetings and should maintain 2m separation throughout”.Generally, workers were told to “reduce the number of people you spend time with in a work setting”.
There is nothing in the guidelines that would suggest that drinking, socialising or other types of work event along these lines would have been allowed.
There were also a number of legal restrictions in place in May 2020:
The most relevant law was that people could not leave their homes – or be outside the place they live – without a reasonable excuse, which included work (where you couldn’t work from home), exercise and getting things like food and medicine.
For people who broke these rules, the police in England could fine them £100 for the first offence which could then double for each further offence up to a maximum of £3,200.
It would be difficult to see how the Downing Street event would have been in line with these rules, argues barrister Adam Wagner.
“If you were doing something which wasn’t necessary for work then you weren’t outside of your house [with] a reasonable excuse and you were potentially committing a criminal offence.”
However, Mr Wagner added that as the prime minister and his wife live in Downing Street they would not have technically left their home to attend the party.
Mr Wagner is involved in a case to bring a judicial review against the Met Police for not investigating the alleged parties.
The law also banned gatherings in a public place of more than two people, unless they were all members of the same household or the gathering was “essential for work purposes”.
However, lawyers have noted that Downing Street is not a public place.
Timeline: The alleged government gatherings The government is facing mounting pressure over several events that are alleged to have been held during lockdowns in 2020.Here is what we know about them and the restrictions in place at the time:
10 May 2020
Boris Johnson announced a plan to take the “first careful steps” out of the lockdown that began in March 2020.But he said people should continue to “obey the rules on social distancing and to enforce those rules we will increase the fines for the small minority who break them”.
Legal restrictions at the time said you could not leave your house without a reasonable excuse and government guidance was that you could meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor setting while exercising.
15 May 2020
A photo from May 2020 showed the prime minister and his staff with bottles of wine and a cheeseboard in the Downing Street garden.When asked about it, Boris Johnson said, “those people were at work talking about work”.
20 May 2020
About 100 people were invited by email to “socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden” on behalf of the prime minister’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds.
Witnesses told the BBC the PM and his wife were among about 30 people who attended.
Boris Johnson has confirmed he attended the event, saying he was there for 25 minutes and “believed implicitly that this was a work event”.
17 July 2020
Boris Johnson announced plans for a “significant return to normality” in England by Christmas “through targeted, local action” instead of national lockdowns.
But he added that the timetable relied on “every one of us staying alert and acting responsibly”.
5 November 2020
With cases of coronavirus rising again, the prime minister told people in England that “we are once again asking you to stay at home” as a new national lockdown began.
He said people should only leave their homes “for work if you can’t work from home, for education, and for essential activities and emergencies”.Indoor gatherings with other households were banned, unless they were for work purposes.
13 November 2020
Sources told the BBC that Downing Street staff members attended a gathering with Carrie Johnson in the flat where she and the prime minister live.A spokesman for Mrs Johnson denies the party took place.
27 November 2020
A leaving event was held for No 10 aide, Cleo Watson, where people were drinking, and Mr Johnson made a speech, according to sources.
2 December 2020
The second national lockdown ended after four weeks but Boris Johnson replaced those restrictions with “tough tiers to keep this virus down”.
London was placed in tier two, which banned two or more people from different households from meeting indoors, unless “reasonably necessary” for work purposes.
10 December 2020
The Department for Education has confirmed it had an office gathering to thank staff for their work during the pandemic.
It says drinks and snacks were brought by those who attended and no outside guests or support staff were invited.
14 December 2020
The Conservative Party has admitted that an “unauthorised gathering” took place at its HQ in Westminster.It was held by the team of the party’s London-mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, who has since stepped down as chair of the London Assembly police and crime committee.The Metropolitan Police is to speak to two people who attended the party.
15 December 2020
Multiple sources have told the BBC there was a Christmas quiz for No 10 staff last year.A photo – published by the Sunday Mirror – showed Boris Johnson taking part and sitting between two colleagues in No 10.
Mr Johnson has denied any wrongdoing.
16 December 2020
London moved into the highest tier of restrictions and Matt Hancock, who was health secretary at the time, said it was important “everyone is cautious” ahead of the festive period.
The Department for Transport apologised after confirming reports of a party in its offices that day, calling it “inappropriate” and an “error of judgment” by staff.
18 December 2020
Downing Street originally denied a report by the Daily Mirror that a party took place in Downing Street.
However, a video obtained by ITV News showed the prime minister’s then-press secretary Allegra Stratton, joking about reports of an event, saying: “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”
Show more What about the rules around other alleged parties? A number of other gatherings are alleged to have taken place in Downing Street during 2020.
One was alleged to have taken place on 27 November – a leaving party for Cleo Watson, a former aide to Dominic Cummings.
At this point a national lockdown was in force and indoor gatherings with other households were not allowed (unless for work).
This lockdown ended on 2 December and England returned to the tier system of restrictions where there was a specific prohibition on organising an indoor gathering of more than 30 people.
When a Downing Street Christmas quiz took place on 15 December , London was under tier 2 restrictions.These rules banned two or more people from different households from meeting indoors, unless “reasonably necessary” for work purposes.
The same rule would have applied when a party – which was joked about in a leaked Downing Street press conference video – was alleged to have taken place on 18 December .
At this point London had been moved to tougher tier 3 restrictions .
Furthermore, the government’s guidance for the Christmas period specifically said: “Although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.”
This same line was also tweeted out by the official gov.uk account on 17 December 2020 in response to a question from a member of the public about whether Christmas parties were allowed in the workplace.
How has the PM responded to the allegations? Allegations of Downing Street parties first surfaced in the Daily Mirror, when it reported in early December that a party had been held in Number 10 during the 2020 Christmas period.
In response, Mr Johnson told MPs that that “all guidance was followed completely in No 10”.
However, after the Downing Street press conference video was leaked – which appeared to confirm a Christmas party took place – Mr Johnson said he understood the public anger.
“It goes without saying that if rules were broken then there will be disciplinary action for all those involved,” Mr Johnson said.
Later, when details of the Downing Street quiz emerged, Mr Johnson said he ” certainly broke no rules “.Number 10 said that the prime minister “briefly took part virtually” to thank staff for their work during the pandemic.
Two people pictured with Mr Johnson – wearing tinsel and a Santa hat – were members of his closer staff who had come in to help him with the technology, according to Downing Street.
Number 10 also insisted that no rules were broken when a photo emerged of the prime minister and his staff with bottles of wine and a cheeseboard in the Downing Street garden from 15 May.Mr Johnson said that the photo showed “people at work”, which was allowed under the rules.
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