Twitter users have mocked official claims that government staff pictured enjoying wine and cheese in the Downing Street garden during the first Covid lockdown were ‘working’.
A photo leaked to The Guardian shows Prime Minister Boris Johnson sitting next to his wife Carrie and up to 17 staff in the garden on May 15, 2020 – at a time when only two people could socialise outside while at least two metres apart under Covid-19 restrictions.
The Telegraph has alleged that those pictured also include Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former chief aide-turned-enemy, disgraced former health secretary Matt Hancock, and the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds.
Yesterday deputy prime minister Dominic Raab insisted that the garden was a ‘place of work’ and that sometimes staff would have a ‘drink after a long day or a long week’ during the first national shutdown.
But public anger at the Government over alleged multiple breaches of Covid curbs in Downing Street and Whitehall during the pandemic is mounting, with social media users now mocking claims that staff were merely ‘working’ that sunny May day.
One person on Twitter parodied government Covid messaging with their own ‘wine, cheese, face’ billboard, while others compared Mr Johnson to stop-motion character Wallace, the eccentric inventor obsessed with cheese.
Another posted an image of a character from US sitcom How I Met Your Mother drinking red wine under the table, and wrote: ‘This work meeting is never going to end.’
It comes as it emerged that the hunt is on for a Whitehall insider with an ‘animus’ against Mr Johnson suspected of leaking the picture of the get-together.
Twitter users have mocked official claims that government staff pictured enjoying wine and cheese in the Downing Street garden during the first Covid lockdown were ‘working’
The Telegraph has alleged that those pictured also include Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former chief aide-turned-enemy, disgraced former health secretary Matt Hancock, and the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds
The hunt is on for the so-called ‘snappy rat’. The Treasury angrily denied it was responsible, with a source saying: ‘It was not anyone in the No 11 team. That room is accessible to anyone working in Downing Street’
Who has been claimed to have been in the No10 garden?
BORIS JOHNSON, Prime Minister
CARRIE JOHNSON, PM’s wife
Carrie was Mr Johnson’s fiancee at the time of the photo, and she was pictured holding their baby Wilf.
MATT HANCOCK, Health Secretary ?
Mr Hancock was Health Secretary at the time of the photo and had earlier that day 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.’
DOMINIC CUMMINGS, PM’s Chief Advisor?
Spent a controversial 16 months in Downing Street before quitting last December after losing a power struggle with Carrie Johnson.
MARTIN REYNOLDS, PM’s Principal Private Secretary?
Mr Reynolds has worked in government for over a decade, with him serving as the PM’s PPS since October 2019 after four years in the same role at the Foreign Office.
JAMES SLACK, PM’s Official spokesperson?
Mr Slack served as the PM’s Director of Communications from the beginning of this year after nearly four years as Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson. Office.
JESS SELDON: PM’s Chief Press Officer on Foreign Affairs?
IMRAN SHAFI, PM’s Private Secretary ?
The image was apparently taken from a first floor veranda at the back of Number 11 Downing Street, where the Chancellor’s offices are. A No10 source claimed that the office ‘was used by Rishi Sunak’s people, and anybody else going in would have been noticed’. The Treasury angrily denied it was responsible.
Now the hunt is on for the so-called ‘snappy rat’. The phrase is a play on the ‘chatty rat’ scandal, when someone leaked plans for a second national lockdown last year.
A ‘chatty pig’ was also accused of briefing against Mr Johnson after he made a speech praising Peppa Pig World.
It was claimed that some of those who attended the event were some of Mr Johnson’s top team such as Mr Hancock and Mr Cummings.
At the time the photo was taken, restrictions on meeting others were still in place. Earlier that day, Mr Hancock had told a Covid press conference: ;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.’
Amid a series of claims about parties at Downing Street and in Whitehall during lockdown, campaigners said the new photograph showed the Prime Minister ‘presided over a culture of believing that the rules applied only to other people since early in the pandemic’.
Thousands could not see dying loved ones in hospital or relatives in care homes at the time the photo was taken.
Last night Mr Johnson defended the gathering, saying: ‘This is where I live, this is where I work; Those were meetings of people at work, talking about work.’
Sources said the photograph was probably taken from one of the state rooms used by the Chancellor’s special advisers and civil servants. Former shadow chancellor Ed Balls claimed it was shot from ‘the 11 Downing Street first floor balcony’.
Mr Raab, asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether he believed ‘someone or some group’ was ‘dripping out leaks to bring Boris Johnson down’, said ‘it’s certainly being done with an animus’ to ‘damage the Government’.
The deputy prime minister added that the gathering was not a party because the attendees were wearing business suits.
Mr Raab said: ‘It is not just a place of work for all the staff that work in No 10 and the Prime Minister, but it is also the residence of the Prime Minister and his very young family.’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said yesterday: ‘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.’
Jo Goodman, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: ‘This supposed work meeting, with no pen, paper or laptop in sight, instead replaced with vital cheese and wine, shows that [the Prime Minister] presided over a culture of believing that the rules applied only to other people since early in the pandemic.’
Twitter users contrasted the photo with their own stories of being separated from loved ones at the time.
One shared a picture of her son seeing his grandmother through a window, while another told how she was banned from sitting with her mother in her garden shortly before she died.
The gathering is one of about a dozen which allegedly took place across Whitehall despite Covid restrictions. Senior civil servant Sue Gray is investigating reports of the parties.
Yesterday, Mr Johnson was overruled by his own ministers from imposing another lockdown before Christmas Day.
But as the Prime Minister promised to keep the data under constant review, the Queen abandoned her Christmas at Sandringham and London mayor Sadiq Khan cancelled the capital’s New Year’s Eve celebrations.
After a special two-hour meeting of the Cabinet on Monday, Mr Johnson said the Government needs to be clearer about the rate of hospital admissions associated with Omicron, and the effectiveness of vaccines against it, before imposing additional measures in England to prevent the spread of the virus.
But he said the Government will ‘reserve the possibility’ of implementing new restrictions, causing opposition politicians to accuse him of lacking a clear plan.
The Financial Times quoted a senior Government insider who insisted: ‘We are not planning to introduce new restrictions this side of Christmas’.
But although Mr Johnson stopped short of imposing new official restrictions, the Prime Minister said the Government wants people to focus on ‘exercising caution’.
The Queen has now decided to spend Christmas in Windsor rather than to travel to Sandringham in what one royal source said was a precautionary approach.
And Mr Khan later announced the cancellation of the capital’s New Year’s Eve celebration in Trafalgar Square ‘in the interests of public safety’.
Meanwhile the Welsh Government has said sporting events will be played behind closed doors from Boxing Day to help control the spread of the new Omicron variant.
Labour, which has said it would support the Government over any further public health measures that were needed, accused the Prime Minister of putting party interests before the country.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said Mr Johnson was failing to set out a ‘clear plan’, saying the Prime Minister is instead choosing to ‘protect himself from his own MPs by simply not saying anything’.
And Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said that Mr Johnson had offered only ‘chaos’ at a time when the country needed clarity.
Esther McVey, Conservative MP for Tatton and a former minister, tweeted to say the Government ‘are now listening to their backbench MPs and for once pushed back on the scaremongering by the lockdown fanatics’.
Government sources reported by The Times said the focus would be on restrictions after Christmas, with a two-week ‘circuit breaker’ banning household mixing being considered for December 28.
The Prime Minister said the arguments for taking action in response to Omicron were ‘very, very finely balanced’ and that the Government is keeping the data under ‘constant review’. He said there were still ‘uncertainties’ around the severity of the new strain, as well as the rate of hospital admissions associated with it, and its impact on the effectiveness of the vaccines.
‘There are still some things that we need to be clearer about before we decide to go further,’ he said.
Mr Johnson added: ‘Unfortunately I must say to people that we will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public, to protect public health, to protect our NHS. We are looking at all kinds of things to keep Omicron under control and we will rule nothing out. But at the moment, what I think we want people to focus on is exercising caution – so ventilation, masks in the appropriate places, all the usual stuff about washing hands, but remember how contagious Omicron really is.’
Ministers were briefed on the latest situation by the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty.
But public anger at the Government over alleged multiple breaches of Covid curbs in Downing Street during the pandemic is mounting, with social media users now mocking claims that staff were merely ‘working’ that sunny May day
The Telegraph reported that the Prime Minister was blocked by his Cabinet from imposing new Covid rules immediately, saying at least a dozen ministers spoke out against proposals for new restrictions.
Earlier on Monday, Downing Street did not deny reports that a number of ministers – including Chancellor Rishi Sunak – had pushed back against calls for action without more evidence of the impact the virus would have.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said it was part of the job of ministers to scrutinise any advice they were given.
The Government has said that it will if necessary recall Parliament to allow MPs to vote on any new regulations it proposes for England.
However, some MPs have questioned whether the Prime Minister would risk another backbench revolt at a time when he is politically weakened by an ongoing row over Downing Street parties and the Tories’ crushing defeat in the North Shropshire by-election.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will give a statement on Covid-19 to MSPs in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday afternoon.
The Northern Ireland Executive is due to meet on Wednesday to discuss further restrictions.
The latest Government figures showed there were a further 91,743 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK as of 9am on Monday, with a further 44 deaths of people within 28 days of testing positive for the disease.
The UK Health Security Agency said there had been 8,044 additional confirmed cases of the Omicron variant reported across the UK, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 45,145.