Downing Street parties: What Covid rules were broken?

By Tom Edgington
BBC Reality Check

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Image source, Getty Images

Boris Johnson has "categorically" denied he was warned in advance a drinks event in the Downing Street garden risked breaking Covid lockdown rules.

The claim, by the prime minister's former senior adviser Dominic Cummings, relates to one of a number of alleged parties involving people linked to the government. An investigation by senior civil servant Sue Gray is under way.

What was the drinks party attended by the PM?

Mr Johnson has apologised to MPs for attending a drinks party in the Downing Street garden, during the first lockdown, in the spring of 2020.

But he had not been notified in advance of the party, he said, and had "believed implicitly" it had been a work event.

He had spent 25 minutes thanking staff, before returning to his office, the prime minister said.

Details of the 20 May event - to which up to 100 people had been invited to "bring your own booze" - were revealed by ITV News.

About 30 people are understood to have attended.

What were the Covid rules on 20 May 2020?

Throughout the pandemic, there has been a mixture of legal restrictions and guidance about how people should behave.

Legal restrictions are underpinned by sanctions such as fines, or prosecution.

Guidance is strong advice set out by the government.

But unless it is backed up in law, there are no fines or prosecution for breaking guidelines.

Legal restrictions at the time said 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.

Image source, WPA Pool

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.

As well as legal restrictions, guidance not enforced by the risk of the prosecution was also in place.

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 as a "work event", the gathering 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, it 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.

Timeline: The alleged government gatherings

The government is facing mounting pressure over several events that are alleged to have been held during lockdowns. Here is what we know about them and the restrictions in place at the time:

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.

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”.

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”.

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”.

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.

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.

A leaving event was held for No 10 aide, Cleo Watson, where people were drinking, and Mr Johnson made a speech, according to sources.

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.

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.

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.

The gathering at the Conservative Party headquarters was described as ‘raucous’
Image caption The gathering at the Conservative Party headquarters was described as ‘raucous’ Image copyright by Daily Mirror

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.

Mr Johnson was pictured in the No 10 library under a portrait of Margaret Thatcher
Image caption Mr Johnson was pictured in the No 10 library under a portrait of Margaret Thatcher Image copyright by Sunday Mirror

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.

A leaving party was held at the Cabinet Office for the outgoing head of the civil service Covid taskforce - the team responsible for drawing up coronavirus restrictions.

Kate Josephs, now chief executive of Sheffield City Council, apologised for the event, saying she was “truly sorry that I did this and for the anger that people will feel as a result”.

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.”

Lockdown restrictions were eased in England, with pubs and restaurants allowed to reopen with outdoor service only.

However, working from home continued to be recommended and socialising indoors with people from other households was not allowed. Meeting others outdoors was limited to groups of six people or two households.

Two parties were held by Downing Street staff at No 10, the night before Prince Philip's funeral.

One of the events was a leaving party for the PM's then director of communications James Slack, who has apologised for the event and acknowledged it “should not have happened at the time that it did”.

Boris Johnson was not at either party.

What about the rules around other alleged parties?

A number of other gatherings are alleged to have taken place in Downing Street during 2020.

Two leaving parties took place on 16 April and went on until the early hours. Legal restrictions at the time banned gatherings indoors between different households (unless in a support bubble). There was an exemption for "work purposes" but this did not mention socialising at work. Boris Johnson did not attend and was at his official country residence, Chequers, at the time

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 leaving drinks were held at the Cabinet Office for Kate Josephs, the outgoing head of the Covid taskforce, on 17 December. It would also have applied to a party - which was joked about in a leaked Downing Street press conference video - alleged to have taken place on 18 December. At this time, 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.

Media caption,
Watch: What has the PM said before about alleged No 10 parties?

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.