Downing Street parties: What Covid rules were broken?

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Photo of Boris Johnson at Downing Street gathering on 13 November 2020Image source, Downing Street

The long-awaited Sue Gray report has been published, giving details of gatherings and parties in Downing Street while Covid restrictions were in force.

It includes pictures of the prime minister raising a glass with members of staff and surrounded by bottles of wine. Fines have been issued over this event on 13 November 2020, but not for Boris Johnson.

The report follows the completion of the Metropolitan Police's investigation into breaches of Covid regulations, which led to a total of 126 fines being issued to 83 individuals.

The prime minister has only been fined over a birthday celebration in Downing Street on 19 June 2020. Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Mr Johnson's wife, Carrie were also fined for the same gathering.

So what were the rules at the time?

13 November 2020 - two gatherings

Sue Gray's report says the first of the gatherings was in the press office area, with press office staff and media special advisers marking the departure of communications director Lee Cain.

It says that while the gathering was not pre-planned, "It did occur at around the time that 'Wine Time Friday' would normally be taking place." This was the name given to the drinks offered in the press office at 16:00 every Friday.

The photos show the prime minister with at least six other people and bottles of wine. At least one person has been fined for attending this event, but not the prime minister.

The report says that Mr Johnson left his office at 19:17, joined the gathering, made a speech and arrived back at his flat at about 20:00.

A member of Downing Street staff told Panorama: "Everyone was stood shoulder to shoulder, some people on each other's laps… one or two people."

When asked in Parliament whether a party did take place on this date, the prime minister told MPs: "No, but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times."

The other gathering was in the private flat of Mr Johnson and his wife Carrie.

The report says it was a meeting "to discuss the handling of the departures" of advisers Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain. Five special advisers attended and there was food and alcohol.

Sue Gray says the "information collected on this gathering is limited" and says that, after the Met concluded its investigation, "I considered whether or not to conduct any further investigation into this event but concluded it was not appropriate or proportionate to do so."

The Mail on Sunday called it a "victory party" and reported that Abba songs including "The Winner Takes It All" were heard being played loudly in the flat that evening, along with sounds of dancing.

Dominic Cummings said there were photographs of the gathering and called it a party.

The rules at the time

A second national lockdown was in force.

The rules prohibited indoor gatherings of two or more people. The police have confirmed that the fines handed out over this event were for breaching this restriction.

An exception was allowed if the gathering "was reasonably necessary" for work purposes. But we can assume the police did not judge the leaving event to have been necessary because at least one fine has been issued.

The "working safely during coronavirus" guidance at the time said only "absolutely necessary participants should physically attend meetings and should maintain social distancing (2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable)".

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.

Image source, Downing Street

19 June 2020 - birthday celebration

This took place in the Cabinet Room after a special adviser had been asked to arrange it as a surprise for Mr Johnson.

Sandwiches, snacks, soft drinks and beer were laid out on the table.

The report says Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Simon Case, now the UK's top civil servant, both attended "for a short period having arrived early for a meeting".

The prime minister, his then fiancee Carrie Symonds and the chancellor were all fined for attending the event, but Mr Case was not.

The rules at the time

Gatherings of two or more people inside were banned by law. An exception was allowed if the gathering "was reasonably necessary" for work purposes.

The fines known as fixed penalty notices (FPN) started at £100, reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days. Fines doubled for each further offence. The initial fine increased to £200 in September 2020.

As Mr Johnson was issued with an FPN for this gathering, it is clear the police have not deemed the gathering to have been necessary.

20 May 2020 - garden drinks

The gathering was arranged a week in advance by Downing Street officials, with an invitation sent out on behalf of senior civil servant Martin Reynolds to about 200 people.

Staff had been invited to "bring your own booze" to the event. Mr Johnson said he had not been notified in advance and had "believed implicitly" it had been a work event.

One response to the invitation flagged that there would be a Downing Street press conference finishing at the time so it would be helpful if staff were "not walking around waving bottles of wine etc".

The report says that the prime minister attended the drinks at approximately 18:00 for around 30 minutes to thank staff before returning to his office.

The rules at the time

At that time in the first lockdown, gatherings of two or more people were outlawed in a public place and it has been pointed out that the Downing Street garden is not a public place. The law was later changed.

But the regulations did say people could not leave their homes - or be outside the place they lived - without a reasonable excuse, which included work (where you couldn't work from home).

Covid rules expert Adam Wagner, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, says it is difficult to see how this Downing Street event would have been in line with the rules.

"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, he 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.

The Met has confirmed that fines were issued because of breaches of the restrictions on leaving, or being outside of, the place where you were living without reasonable excuse.

On the day of the party, the government Twitter account reminded people of the existing guidance that gatherings must be limited to two people outside.

Mr Johnson told MPs that as a "work event", he believed the gathering was technically within the guidance.

The guidance said only "absolutely necessary" participants should attend meetings and social distancing should be observed.

There was nothing in the guidelines to suggest that drinking or socialising would have been allowed.

Image source, WPA Pool

16 April 2021 - leaving events

The night before the socially-distanced funeral for Prince Philip, two leaving events took place in Downing Street.

Boris Johnson did not attend these gatherings but has apologised for them.

We know that some of the fines issued by police for this day relate to the leaving party for former No 10 director of communications James Slack, who has also apologised.

That gathering began at 18:30 with some staff still being there when the building was locked down for the evening, at which point they moved to the Downing Street garden, where they were joined by people who had attended the other gathering. The report says: "A number of those present drank excessively."

A child's swing-slide set in the garden was damaged and the last person left the event at 04:20.

The rules at the time

The rules had been eased in England on 12 April 2021, but working from home continued to be recommended and socialising indoors with people from other households was not allowed.

There was an exemption for "work purposes" but this did not mention socialising at work.

The Met said that the fines were for breaches of the rules on participating in an outdoor gathering with more than six people.

14 January 2021 - gathering

A gathering was held in Downing Street for the departure of two No 10 private officials, Ms Gray's report states, with alcohol available and the prime minister attending to give a leaving speech.

The event started at 18:00 and some of those present were there beyond 23:00.

The rules at the time

England had entered its third national lockdown on 6 January 2021. A "stay at home" order was in place. People were allowed to leave home for work (if they could not reasonably work from home), but were not allowed to meet socially with others.

The fines were for attending an indoor gathering of two or more people.

18 June 2020 - gathering

There was a gathering, which began in the Cabinet Room and then moved to the Cabinet Office, for the departure of a No 10 private secretary. There were speeches as well as food, alcohol and music.

In an exchange of messages during the planning of the event, Lee Cain said to Martin Reynolds: "I don't see how we can have some kind of party" adding that it "obviously comes with rather substantial comms risks".

The former director of ethics in the cabinet office, Helen MacNamara, has apologised after confirming that she received a fine for attending the event. She provided a karaoke machine for the second part of the event.

The report says: "The event lasted for a number of hours. There was excessive alcohol consumption by some individuals. One individual was sick. There was a minor altercation between two other individuals."

The rules at the time

This gathering was the day before the one for Mr Johnson's birthday - the rules were the same.

The fines were for participating in an indoor gathering with two or more people.

Media caption,

Watch: What has Boris Johnson said before about alleged No 10 parties?

17 and 18 December 2020

Three events took place on 17 December: two for the departure of officials and a Christmas quiz. The prime minister gave a speech at one of the leaving events.

We do not know which events generated the fines.

There was also a gathering in the press office ahead of the Christmas break on 18 December 2020, which was joked about in a leaked Downing Street press conference video.

The event featured alcohol, a Secret Santa gift exchange, and an awards ceremony, with people working elsewhere in the building complaining about the noise it generated.

A cleaner noted the following morning that red wine had been spilled on one wall and on a number of boxes of photocopier paper.

What were the rules?

The Christmas gatherings happened shortly after London had been moved to tougher tier 3 restrictions, which meant mixing indoors with people outside your household or bubble was not allowed.

The fines were issued for going to indoor gatherings with two or more people.

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."