Head of Covid rules taskforce admits holding leaving drinks during lockdown

Kate Josephs says she is ‘truly sorry’ for gathering at Cabinet Office at Christmas 2020

Adam Forrest
Friday 14 January 2022 19:30
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Liz Truss suggests British public should 'move on' from partygate scandal

The former head of the government unit responsible for drawing up Covid rules has apologised for organising a leaving drinks event during 2020’s Christmas lockdown.

Kate Josephs, ex-chief of the government’s Covid-19 taskforce at the Cabinet Office, admitted she had gathered colleagues together for her own leaving event on 17 December 2020, while strict curbs on socialising remained in force in London.

Ms Josephs, who is currently chief executive of Sheffield City Council, said she was co-operating with the investigation into government parties carried out by senior civil servant Sue Gray.

“On the evening of 17 December, I gathered with colleagues that were at work that day, with drinks, in our office in the Cabinet Office, to mark my leaving the civil service,” Ms Josephs said in a statement posted on Twitter on Friday.

“I am truly sorry that I did this and for the anger that people will feel as a result. Sheffield has suffered greatly during this pandemic, and I apologise unreservedly.”

Pressure is mounting on Boris Johnson amid fresh allegations that two drinks gatherings were held at Downing Street last April – the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, while strict Covid measures were still in place.

Downing Street has apologised to Buckingham Palace after it emerged parties were held in No 10 on 16 April 2021, the day before the Queen attended the Duke’s funeral alone – but refused to say if Mr Johnson knew about them.

The PM’s spokesman said he had been at Chequers on 16 April and had not been invited to the events. James Slack, Mr Johnson’s former director of communications, apologised for the “anger and hurt” caused by his leaving gathering that evening, saying it “should not have happened”.

London had just entered tier 3 curbs at the time of Ms Josephs’ leaving event, with parties banned and the public prohibited from mixing indoors with anyone outside their support bubble. According to The Telegraph, dozens of officials from the Covid-19 taskforce attended the event.

On the very same day, the government’s official Twitter feed replied to a query asking if employers could hold Christmas parties. It warned: “You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party.”

Ms Josephs said: “I have been cooperating fully with the Cabinet Office investigations and I do not want to pre-empt the findings of the investigation.”

Leader of Sheffield City Council, Labour councillor Terry Fox, said people in the city would feel “angry and let down” but stopped short of calling for Ms Josephs to resign from her current role. “We await the findings of the investigation,” he said.

It had already emerged that a Christmas party was held on 17 December 2020 in the private office of cabinet secretary Simon Case, separately from Ms Josephs’ leaving event.

Some 70 per cent of voters want Mr Johnson to quit, according to a Savanta survey for The Independent. Some 68 per cent dismissed his Commons apology – in which he claimed he did not realise a “bring your own booze” gathering in May 2020 was a party – as bogus.

However, several Tory MPs told The Independent they expected Mr Johnson to cling on to power until Ms Gray’s report, and did not think the 54 no-confidence letters needed to trigger a leadership challenge would be sent to the head of the 1922 committee next week.

One Tory backbencher told The Independent that he was “close” to sending in a letter of no confidence – and warned the PM there could be a “tsunami” of letters soon.

“There will be a brief lull period, as we wait for Sue Gray to report, but there could be a tsunami of letters before too long. It depends on how damning the Sue Gray report, or whether more revelations come out – photos of parties would be very bad.”

A senior Tory MP said he was get a lot of “angry” emails about the PM and parties. “Everyone is annoyed at the moment. It’s the most dangerous time that [Mr Johnson] has ever faced. It’s very serious. The mood is very bad. But I’d be very surprised if we reached 54 letters before the Sue Gray report.”

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, told The Independent: “Every new allegation that comes out is bad news.”

Responding to the latest claims of leaving drinks at No 10 and Whitehall, he said: “For everybody in the population who obeyed the rules, but particularly those who weren’t able to say goodbye to loved ones when they died, it creates a very bad impression.”

Asked if Mr Johnson would have to go over partygate, the senior Tory figure said: “We must wait and see what Sue Gray says. I don’t want to speculate until I’ve seen that report.”

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson is drawing up a list of officials to offer resignations over the partygate scandal in the weeks ahead as he battles to save his premiership, The Independent has reported.

Dubbed “Operation Save Big Dog” by the PM, the plan includes a drive to work out who should go after Ms Gray’s report, according to sources.

Earlier on Friday, foreign secretary Liz Truss suggested the British public should “move on” from the scandal over parties held at No 10 during the pandemic. She added that people should “wait for the results of the Sue Gray inquiry”.

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