Boris Johnson attended a “bring your own booze” event in the Downing Street garden less than an hour after a senior minister warned Britons that social gatherings were prohibited, according to witnesses.
The event on May 20 2020, when England was subject to lockdown restrictions, was organised by the head of the prime minister’s private office and more than 100 staff in Number 10 were invited.
The position of Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary since 2019, was in jeopardy after a leaked email showed he urged staff to “make the most of the lovely weather”.
Johnson’s own attendance at the event on May 20 2020, confirmed by multiple people and not denied by Downing Street, is expected to prompt fresh criticism of his leadership, which has been rocked by media reports of a series of allegedly illicit government parties.
Johnson has consistently denied that parties that breached coronavirus restrictions in England were held in Downing Street.
In the email obtained by ITV News, Reynolds told Number 10 staff: “Hi all. After what has been an incredibly busy period we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening. Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!”
The event in the Downing Street garden was attended by about 40 people including Johnson and his wife Carrie, according to witnesses.
“It was clearly a breach of the rules,” said one witness. “People were drinking, sitting at tables in different groups. Boris and Carrie were there. There were about 40 people there — it was mainly Number 10 staff.”
Less than an hour before drinks and picnic food were served, Oliver Dowden, at the time the culture secretary, held a press conference where he indicated such events were not allowed in England.
Under Covid regulations at that time, meetings outside with only one other person were allowed. Johnson had introduced fines for rule-breakers — starting at £100 and doubling for each offence up to a maximum of £3,200.
Dowden told the Number 10 press conference on May 20 2020: “You can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place, provided you stay two metres apart.”
The Downing Street garden party is being investigated by Sue Gray, a senior Whitehall official, along with allegations of other government events that broke Covid restrictions. Johnson said on Monday it would be a “proper investigation”.
Gray is expected to interview Johnson as part of her inquiry, which is due to report by the end of the month. Downing Street said it was not commenting while the inquiry was under way.
Reynolds, who previously served as Johnson’s private secretary at the Foreign Office, is expected to be moved to a new position in the civil service. One official said he was being lined up for an ambassadorial role.
The Metropolitan Police said on Monday it was aware of “widespread reporting” of breaches of health protection regulations at Downing Street on May 20 2020.
“The Metropolitan Police Service . . . is in contact with the Cabinet Office,” it added.
The Met has previously said that, if a Cabinet Office investigation now led by Gray into Downing Street parties produced any further evidence, it would examine it. The capital’s police force last month declined to investigate media reports of Number 10 parties in November and December 2020, also during Covid restrictions.
The revelation that Johnson attended the Downing Street garden party on May 20 2020 sent shockwaves through the Conservative party. “He’s back into the territory of being in a lot of trouble,” said one Tory veteran.
Lord Gavin Barwell, who served as chief of staff to former prime minister Theresa May, described the gathering as “unbelievable. And yet, in another sense, sadly all too believable.”
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said Johnson was trying to make officials “take the fall for his own mistakes”. Sir Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat leader, said it was “a kick in the teeth” to people who stuck to coronavirus rules.