Boris Johnson has claimed a photo that appears to show staff eating cheese and drinking wine in the No. 10 Downing Street garden during the first Covid lockdown were “people at work talking about work”.
The leaked image is the latest development in the Downing Street party scandal, which has seen the Government accused of breaking lockdown rules to hold recreational gatherings, Mirror Online reports.
Facing questions from the media about the picture this evening, the Prime Minister said: “Those were people at work, talking about work.”
He added: “Those were meetings of people at work talking about work. This is where I live, it is where I work. Those were meetings of people at work, talking about work.
“I really think it is vital that we focus if we can on the message we are trying to get across today. We face a serious spike in Omicron and we are seeing the cases going up in London, particularly the cases of hospitalisations.
“The answer is to be cautious but also to get vaccinated.”
When pressed again about whether other people could drink wine at work and stick within the rules, he added: “I have said what I have said about that.”
His comments came after deputy PM Dominic Raab claimed that no lockdown rules were broken at the cheese and wine social.
The Justice Secretary stressed the garden was a “place of work” and that it was not “against the regulations”, and a Downing Street spokesman said the photo showed colleagues “meeting to discuss work”.
The photo, obtained by the Guardian, showed Mr Johnson, his then-fiancee Carrie, and 17 other staff members in the garden on May 15 2020, with bottles of wine and a cheeseboard on a table in front of the Prime Minister.
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.”
On Mr Johnson’s then-fiancee Carrie being there, Mr Raab said: “It is not just a place of work for all the staff that work in Number 10 and the Prime Minister, but it is also the residence of the Prime Minister and his very young family.
“I genuinely don’t think it gets classified as a party because Carrie popped down and spent a little bit of time there with her husband.”
Mr Raab reiterated on BBC Breakfast: “This wasn’t a social occasion. It was staff having a drink after a busy set of work meetings and the pressures of the day.”
At the time the photo was taken, restrictions on meeting others were still in place and earlier that day, then-health secretary Matt Hancock had 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.”
Meanwhile, 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.”
Jo Goodman, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, insisted it is “exhausting” for everyone across the country “who sacrificed so much to see the constant, flagrant disregard we have all been held in”.
She added: “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.”
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