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How Does Boris Johnson's "Work Event" Apology Stand Up To The May 2020 Covid Rules?

4 min read

The Prime Minister has "categorically" denied he knew a "work event" held in the Downing Street garden in May 2020 was against Covid rules that prohibited social mixing at the time.

But how does Boris Johnson's defence stand up to the exact rules set out by his government?

While he has admitted to attending the gathering on May 20, 2020, he insisted to the House of Commons he he did not have prior knowledge it was taking place, and he “believed implicitly that this was a work event”. 

His former chief aide Dominic Cummings has since said he is willing to swear under oath Johnson was told about the party, one of more than a dozen alleged events being investigated by senior civil servant Sue Gray.

If Cummings' version of events is true then Johnson could be found to have misled parliament – most likely a resigning matter. 

What were the rules at the time?

In May 2020 the UK was still under strict restrictions imposed as part of the first lockdown. England was at coronavirus alert level four, which meant virus transmission was "high or rising exponentially".

On 10 May, the Prime Minister announced that lockdown measures would begin to be eased for the first time a week later, and the Covid Recovery Strategy was published.

It meant people who could not work from home should return to the workplace – but avoid public transport – and everyone could leave the house to exercise for more than once a day.

People were allowed to meet outdoors with one person from outside their household, but were told they must stat two metres apart. 

Around an hour before the gathering took place the Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden told a televised Covid briefing: “You can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place provided that you stay two metres apart.”

Were the rules different for workplaces?

The law at the time said gatherings between more than two people were not permitted in public places, but that an exception would be made for “essential for work purposes”.

Johnson has said when he walked into the garden he believed it was a "work event”, and not a social event. It is believed 40 people attended with food and wine laid out on tables.

An email from the PM's Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds invited Downing Street staff "to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the Number 10 garden”.

Johnson insists he had not seen this email until it was published by ITV News earlier this month.

Could social events be held in workplaces?

As part of the Covid recovery strategy the government also published new guidelines for employers. It does not contain rules specifically on whether social gatherings between colleagues in the workplace were permitted.

But it does say colleagues should all keep two metres apart, different teams should avoid mixing “as far as possible”, and any meetings should usually be limited to “only absolutely necessary participants”.

Government guidance at the time also stated that governments should "take reasonable steps to avoid people being gathered together”.

What has Boris Johnson said about the event?

Johnson told MPs he went into the garden just after 6pm “to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working”. 

In a statement to the Commons last week he said: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event, but with hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them.”

Johnson's spokesperson has said the Prime Minister did not receive the email invitation, but has not explained how Johnson became aware the event was taking place before arriving at it. 

What happened next?

In a column for the Sunday Times the journalist Dominic Lawson said he had spoken to a former Downing Street official who said “at least two people had told the PM, after seeing the emailed invitation from his principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, that this was ‘a party’ and should be immediately cancelled”.

Number 10 strongly denied Johnson was warned about the event in advance.

But since then several journalists have reported people within Downing Street have corroborated Lawson's account Johnson was aware the party was due to take place.

Cummings, who was still working for the PM at the time, claims his former boss had waved aside his warnings, and rejected the idea Reynolds would not have checked with his boss before inviting what was believed to be around 100 staff to join an event.

In response Johnson said today that "nobody told me and nobody said that this was something that was against the rules".

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