Boris Johnson is embroiled in another row over lockdown gatherings after a picture emerged of the PM, his wife and 17 staff members enjoying wine and cheese in the Downing Street garden.
The photo, first obtained by the Guardian, was said to have been taken on May 15 2020, during the first coronavirus lockdown.
Earlier that afternoon, the-then Health Secretary Matt Hancock had advised the public to stick to the rules and not get carried away by the warm weather.
He told the daily coronavirus briefing: “People can now spend time outdoors and exercise as often as you like – and you can meet one other person from outside your household in an outdoor, public place. But please keep two metres apart.
Downing Street insisted it was a work meeting but their denials have done little to stem the public outrage, which comes after a string of allegations of rule-breaking gatherings in Westminster.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said “serious questions need to be answered” and bereaved families said it underlined the “flagrant disregard” the public was held in by the Government.
Daily Mirror/Ian Vogler)
The timing could not be worse for the Prime Minister who is currently weighing up whether to impose further Covid curbs ahead of Christmas.
Mr Johnson now has to decide whether to throw the nation’s Christmas plans into chaos to protect the NHS from the new Omicron variant.
But his own MPs are openly mutinous and his authority has already taken a battering in recent days after a massive Tory rebellion against vaccine passports and a by-election defeat in ultra-safe North Shropshire.
Here we look at the latest row over gatherings – and why it matters.
Who is in the picture?
The picture shows Mr Johnson, his then-fiancee Carrie, and other staff members in the Downing Street garden on May 15 2020.
The PM is sitting at a table with Carrie, who is cradling their baby son Wilf, and two aides. There are two bottles of wine and a cheeseboard on a table in front of the Prime Minister.
Four other members of staff are sat around a second table cluttered with bottles of wine and glasses a short distance away.
Nine people are stood gathered on the grass around a low table.
Then two other people are sitting on the floor to the right of the larger group.
What were the rules?
In May 2020, only two people were able to gather in public places and social distancing rules said you had to stay two metres apart.
Downing Street is a private building so the rule on public places would not have applied but the picture is unclear whether the staff are adhering to the two-metre rule.
People who could not work from home were able to go into the office but in-person meetings were only allowed if strictly necessary.
The rules were not as specific at this point in the pandemic as they became towards the end of 2020, when gatherings were explicitly banned
What has Downing Street said?
No10 insists the rules have not been broken as it was a work meeting.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “These were individuals in Downing Street – officials, staff – who were meeting after the most recent press conference that day, so meeting out of hours.
“There were meetings taking place both inside and outside No 10.
“This shows colleagues who were required to be in work meeting following a press conference to discuss work.”
The fact that the Prime Minister’s wife was there has raised eyebrows.
But the PM’s spokesman said: “Downing Street is also a private residence for both the Prime Minister and Chancellor.
“The Prime Minister’s wife has use of her garden. It is effectively her garden.”
But Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab muddied the waters by claiming staff were having a drink “after a long day” – rather than actively working.
Mr Raab told Times Radio: “Downing Street used that garden as a place of work. They used it for work meetings. The photo is from a day when, I think, the Prime Minister had just done a press conference.
“And sometimes they’ll have a drink after a long day or a long week. And that’s not against the regulations.”
Have rules been broken?
It is unclear. Downing Street is a private building so the PM and his wife would have been allowed to use what is effectively their garden.
If we take No10 at face value and accept staff at working, then holding those meetings outside would not have been against the rules.
The fact there are bottles of wine and a cheese board slightly undermines this argument – but they could have been working.
Top barrister Adam Wagner, who is an expert on coronavirus regulations, said he was “doubtful it was against the law”, but that it may have been against guidance.
He said regulations at the time stated “you couldn’t be outside the place you were living without a reasonable excuse” and that working would be such a reason.
And that there was “no way of knowing from a pic that they weren’t working”.
But after Mr Raab suggested they may have been having a drink after work, he tweeted: “Changed my mind on this. Even though the gatherings rules didn’t apply I think Raab may have made things quite a lot worse.”
Thatcherite thinktank Bow Group also raised concerns about the PM’s wife being at a work meeting.
Nic Conner, Bow Group’s Senior Research Fellow: “If we take statements from Downing Street and Dom Raab at face value, this is a smoking gun admission that Carrie attends official meetings at Downing Street.
“This is important, as, unlike ministers, advisers or civil servants, the partner of the Prime Minister is not bound by a code of conduct.
“You cannot make an official complaint about them, and they cannot be sacked.”
What has the reaction been?
Campaigners for bereaved families said it was “exhausting” for everyone “to see the constant, flagrant disregard we have all been held in”.
Jo Goodman, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “We’re not sure how much more the Prime Minister expects us to take before he’ll accept that he has to be open with the public about these events.
“This supposed work meeting, with no pen, paper or laptop in sight, instead replaced with vital cheese and wine, shows that he presided over a culture of believing that the rules applied only to other people since early in the pandemic.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer said “serious questions” need to be answered.
He told Sky News: “Everybody will have looked at that photograph and to suggest that that is a work meeting is a bit of a stretch by anybody’s analysis. I think there are very serious questions to be answered, but just look at the photo and ask yourself: is that a work meeting going on or is that a social event? I think the answer is pretty obvious.”
Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney said it “mind boggling for Raab to claim this was a necessary meeting”.
She added: “Yet again the Conservative party is taking the public for fools. The evidence is staring us all in the face.
“It is scary to think Dominic Raab is supposed to run our justice system when he can’t even see blatant wrongdoing in a photo.”
Will it be investigated?
Top civil servant Sue Gray has been tasked with leading the probe into various allegations of rule-breaking gatherings in Westminster last year.
In an extraordinary twist, she replaced civil service chief Simon Case as head of the inquiry, when a claim emerged that a party was held in his department last year.
Ms Gray is a former Cabinet Office ethics chief who oversaw the Plebgate inquiry probe, when former chief whip Andrew Mitchell was accused of calling a police officer a pleb at the Downing Street gates.
The investigation is looking at a number of different alleged parties, including a Christmas bash in Downing Street on December 18 last year, first revealed by the Mirror.
It will also look at a Department for Education gathering on December 10 and a leaving do at Downing Street on November 27.
But Ms Gray has freedom to look at other allegations in her inquiry.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.