What were the rules on outdoor parties in May 2020?
ITV News has reported that around 40 staff, including the Prime Minister, allegedly gathered for a drinks party in the garden of 10 Downing Street on the evening of 20 May 2020.
The report includes an email allegedly sent by the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary, Martin Reynolds, allegedly inviting over 100 staff to “some socially distanced drinks in the No10 garden this evening”. The email also said: “Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!”
An inquiry into the claims of government parties during the pandemic, led by senior civil servant Sue Gray, is ongoing.
During Prime Minister’s Questions on 12 January 2022, Boris Johnson admitted that the party happened and that he attended.
Number 10 is a big department, with the garden as an extension of the office, which has been in constant use because of the role of fresh air in stopping the virus, and when I went into that garden just after six on 20 May 2020 to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event.
With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside, I should have found some other way to thank them, and I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way.
Labour leader Keir Starmer and deputy leader Angela Rayner have claimed that the Prime Minister and his staff broke the rules at the time by attending the alleged party in May 2020, and the Labour Party has accused the Conservatives of ignoring the rules.
So what did the rules in England say?
On 11 May 2020, the government published its Covid Recovery Strategy, which began to relax the restrictions of the first lockdown.
Under the rules which applied on 20 May when the alleged party happened, people were allowed to leave their homes to spend time in public spaces outdoors, subject to “not meeting up with any more than one person from outside your household” and remaining two metres away from anyone outside of your household.
Indeed, on the same day that the party allegedly took place, the Metropolitan Police tweeted a public reminder of these rules, and former culture secretary Oliver Dowden gave a press conference, where he said: “You can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place provided that you stay two metres apart.”.
The law at the time said “no person may participate in a gathering in a public place of more than two people” unless it was for one of a number of stated reasons. These included when the gathering was “essential for work purposes” or “all the persons in the gathering are members of the same household”.
However, the Downing Street garden is not a public space. For most of those allegedly attending, it may have been part of their workplace.
For the Prime Minister and his wife, it was their home. Under the law at the time, people were allowed to go outside into the garden of the home that they were living in.
People were not allowed to visit other people’s homes, unless one of the exemptions applied. In this case, we don’t know whether the Downing Street garden was considered exempt as a workplace.
Rules in the workplace
As part of the government’s recovery strategy, it also published new guidelines for employers and staff on how to manage workplaces safely.
As a general principle, it advised employers that “you need to think about the risks [workers] face and do everything reasonably practicable to minimise them, recognising you cannot completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19.”
Assuming that Downing Street staff were considered essential workers who could not do their jobs from home, they were required to keep two metres apart whenever possible.
The workplace guidelines that applied in May 2020 do not say whether social gatherings between colleagues in the workplace were permitted, although they do advise that different teams should usually avoid mixing “as far as possible”.
The guidelines also say that meetings should usually be limited to “only absolutely necessary participants”. It also advised that these should be held outdoors or in well ventilated areas when possible. A separate document also said “workers should try to minimise all meetings and other gatherings in the workplace".
The guidelines said that breaks in common areas should usually be staggered and that any seating in these areas should be reconfigured “to maintain spacing and reduce face-to-face interactions.”
The government’s outdoor guidance on 20 May 2020 also said: “Businesses should also take reasonable steps to avoid people being gathered together.”
Update 12 January 2022
This article was updated to include the Prime Minister’s comments on 12 January 2022.