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'Crowded' parties, 'excessive' drinking: UK report into COVID gatherings blames 'senior leadership'

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By Alasdair Sandford  with Reuters, AP
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13 November 2020; a gathering in No 10 Downing Street on the departure of a special adviser
13 November 2020; a gathering in No 10 Downing Street on the departure of a special adviser   -   Copyright  UK Cabinet Office/ Sue Gray report

A failure of leadership at Boris Johnson's Downing Street office was to blame for a culture that led to illegal parties being held during coronavirus lockdowns, says a much-awaited official report published on Wednesday.

The results of senior civil servant Sue Gray's inquiry ensured that the "partygate" scandal, which engulfed the British Prime Minister and his close team earlier this year, returned to centre stage.

"Many of these events should not have been allowed to happen," the report states. "The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture."

"Those in the most junior positions attended gatherings at which their seniors were present, or indeed organised," Gray says.

Johnson was forced onto the defensive again as he told parliament that he took "full responsibility for everything that took place", repeated an apology, but once more ruled out resigning. 

Behaviour 'fell short' of high standards expected

The report gives more details about numerous parties and social gatherings that took place in the heart of government — at a time when it was imposing strict lockdown rules on the rest of the population to try to curb the spread of COVID-19.

It includes:

  • A gathering on 15 May 2020 in the Downing Street garden to which "the Prime Minister brought cheese and wine from his flat";

  • An event five days later, in the same garden, to which 200 staff were invited by email — some 30-40 are thought to have attended — and encouraged to "bring your own booze". The report documents concerns at the time that it was a "comms (communications) risk". Later Johnson's senior aide who sent the invitation comments in WhatsApp message that "we seem to have got away with" the event.

  • A party the following month — the report documents correspondence between officials over planning — at which there was "excessive alcohol consumption", "one individual was sick" and "there was a minor altercation between two other individuals";

  • A staff leaving event in Whitehall in December 2020 at which social distancing "did not happen" and "there was also mingling between groups";

  • A Downing Street event on 18 December 2020 at which "some members of staff drank excessively", which was "crowded and noisy" which led others in the building to deduce there was "a party";

  • Another party, held the night before the funeral for Queen Elizabeth's husband Prince Philip in April 2021, at which revellers in the garden broke a swing belonging to Johnson’s toddler son Wilf and partied until 4 am.

"There were failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No. 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times. Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did," Sue Gray comments in the report.

"Many will be dismayed that behaviour of this kind took place on this scale at the heart of government," she continues. "The public have a right to expect the very highest standards of behaviour in such places and clearly what happened fell well short of this."

However, the civil servant notes changes to organisation and management since an earlier interim report and says she is "pleased progress is being made".

UK Cabinet Office/ Sue Gray report
13 November 2020; a gathering in No 10 Downing Street on the departure of a special adviserUK Cabinet Office/ Sue Gray report

Johnson 'humbled' but argues time to 'move on'

The prime minister told the House of Commons he was "humbled" and had "learned a lesson" but that it was now time to "move on" and focus on the government’s priorities.

Johnson said that when he told parliament last year that no rules were broken and there were no parties, "it was what I believed to be true".

Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Gray's report was a "catalogue of criminality", adding that Johnson's government had "treated the sacrifices of the British people with utter contempt".

Johnson faced angry opposition MPs on Wednesday, who repeatedly called for him to step down.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, a Labour MP from Slough, called the government "utterly hypocritical", adding that he had been unable to be with his grandmother when she died and unable to attend a family funeral.

"Why wasn’t I by the bedside of my lovely grandmother during her final few days? Why did I let her die alone in that hospital? Why did I not attend the funeral of my uncle because of worries about government restrictions on numbers?" the MP said.

Meanwhile, Labour MP Chris Bryant called Johnson's defence a "load of baloney", adding that the prime minister knew about the gatherings and Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said Johnson was "only sorry he got caught".

The report follows the publication of more photos and accounts this week of lockdown-breaking parties at Johnson's Downing Street office and residence.

ITV News published photos which subsequently appeared in Gray's report. They appeared to show Johnson raising a wine glass and making a speech at a gathering on November 13, 2020. Several open bottles are visible on the table next to him. The event was a staff leaving party, the broadcaster said.

When questioned about it in parliament in December last year, the prime minister denied there was a party and said he was sure "the rules were followed at all times".

But the BBC's investigative Panorama programme broadcast on Tuesday cited insiders describing crowded parties, with some people staying all night and others arriving for work in the morning to find empty bottles around the building.

Johnson was fined by police for attending a gathering celebrating his birthday during lockdown but escaped further penalties. The first serving prime minister ever found to have broken the law, he apologised for the culture in Downing Street but rejected calls for his resignation.

Police handed a total of 126 fines to 83 people, most of them thought to be junior staffers. Johnson's wife and the UK's finance minister have also said they paid fines.

Critics, including some within the ruling Conservative Party, said the latest photos prove the prime minister lied to parliament — traditionally a resigning matter — and renewed calls on Johnson to step down. A parliamentary investigation into whether Johnson did mislead parliament is also due to report.

Ministers have defended the prime minister, pointing out that he had apologised and the police investigation was complete.

Boris Johnson has faced several scandals in his past and has so far survived.

Since the "partygate" scandal broke, he has clung onto power, and the political context has been changed by Russia's war in Ukraine and the rising cost of living. Some have said it would be wrong to evict the country's leader at a time of international and domestic crisis.

However, Johnson's supporters expressed fears that if Gray's report included more vivid evidence that government staff were partying while ordinary people were avoiding social contact — many were unable to visit sick relatives or attend funerals — then public anger could be reignited.

Gray's interim report was published earlier this year but the full edition was delayed to allow for the separate police investigation to be carried out.