What social restrictions were in place on the date of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street garden gathering?

PM pictured enjoying wine and cheese with colleagues on 15 May 2020, when public could only meet one friend outside at a distance of two-metres

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 12 January 2022 08:57
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A new photograph has emerged showing Boris Johnson and his staff sitting down for a glass of wine in the garden of No 10 Downing Street during the first lockdown last year at a time when strict social restrictions were still being imposed on the public to tackle the first wave of coronavirus infections.

Originally obtained by The Guardian, the picture shows the prime minister sat beside his wife, Carrie Johnson, accompanied by two other advisers - and a cheeseboard - on the balmy early summer evening of Friday 15 May 2020.

A further table of four is nearby, as well as a ring of nine people conversing on the lawn, plus two more sat down on the grass, with little evidence of social distancing being observed among the group.

A Downing Street spokesperson has responded to the story - which follows weeks of pressure on Mr Johnson’s administration to come clean about alleged office Christmas parties held in secret in December 2020, contrary to official advice - by insisting the May gathering was within the rules.

“On 15 May 2020, the prime minister held a series of meetings throughout the afternoon, including briefly with the then health and care secretary [Matt Hancock] and his team in the garden following a press conference,” the spokesperson said.

“The prime minister went to his residence shortly after 7pm. A small number of staff required to be in work remained in the Downing Street garden for part of the afternoon and evening.”

On the Friday in question, Mr Hancock had given the daily coronavirus press conference, discussing the threat Covid-19 posed to the UK’s care homes - revealing that one-in-three in England had suffered an outbreak - the possibility of a pay rise for frontline nurses and a slight increase in the R rate used to measure the pace of the disease’s transmission.

“We have passed through the peak, but there is clearly a long way to go,” the health secretary had told his audience.

That followed five days after Mr Johnson himself had delivered a televised address at 7pm on Sunday night in which he announced the first tentative easing of the lockdown he had so reluctantly declared on 23 March.

The prime minister had said people could now take unlimited exercise outside of the home and meet one other person socially, so long as the reunion took place outside and a two-metre distance was observed, and that those employed in manual industries where it had not been possible to work from home would be allowed to return so long as their workplaces were made “Covid secure”.

Otherwise, the existing working from home order would remain in place.

He also introduced a less-than-snappy new mantra, “Stay alert to control the virus and save lives”, said the UK was dropping its Covid warning level from tier 4 to tier 3, announced incoming airport quarantine rules, that fines would be increased for those who violated lockdown conditions and that primary school children might be able to return to the classroom from 1 June, all being well.

Cafe and restaurants would remain closed, he added, on a less positive note, and public transport should still be avoided to stop the spread.

Commenting on the newly-emerged photograph, which appears to show Mr Johnson and his staff flouting their own guidance, human rights barrister Adam Wagner, who examines coronavirus regulations and interprets them on Twitter for the public, said in his opinion it was “doubtful [the gathering] was against the law” but that it may have well have contradicted the guidance of the time.

Mr Wagner added that regulations in place last May stated “you couldn’t be outside the place you were living without a reasonable excuse” but that working would be such a reason and that there was “no way of knowing from a pic that they weren’t working”.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast on Monday morning, deputy prime minister Dominic Raab muddied the waters somewhat when he attempted to contextualise the gathering by saying that the garden in question was regularly “used for work meetings” but remarked: “Sometimes they’ll have a drink after a long day or a long week.”

Whether the occasion caught on camera was a meeting, as the Downing Street spokesperson suggested, or “a drink after a long day” currently remains ambiguous.

That is now a matter for senior civil servant Sue Gray to consider after she was appointed to investigate the apparent spate of rule-breaking Westminster bashes last year in place of Cabinet secretary Simon Case, who was removed from the probe after it was revealed he had known about a festive quiz held within his own department.

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