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Johnson under growing pressure over No 10 parties during lockdown last year

·4-min read

Boris Johnson is under intense pressure to explain why No 10 staff seemingly held two parties during lockdown last winter as insiders said the prime minister attended one gathering and remarked on how packed it was.

Witnesses have come forward to detail party games and festivities beyond midnight in Downing Street during the winter 2020 lockdown, expanding on reports first made in the Daily Mirror.

Related: Let’s not pretend the anti-mask babies would have lasted a minute in the blitz | Marina Hyde

Johnson and his press secretary did not deny the events took place though they simultaneously insisted no Covid rules were broken. Without elaboration, they said on Wednesday that they “don’t recognise” some of the reports.

At prime minister’s questions, Keir Starmer accused Johnson of “taking the British public for fools for following the rules”, adding: “The prime minister doesn’t deny there was a Downing Street Christmas party last year. He says no rules were broken. Both of those things can’t be true.”

The allegations centre around two events: a leaving party on 27 November, believed to have been for Cleo Watson, a former aide to Dominic Cummings who himself caused a furore by breaching lockdown rules, and a staff party on 18 December.

A source with knowledge of the 27 November gathering told the Guardian that Johnson came in and made a speech, mentioning how crowded it was in the room before leaving shortly afterwards to continue working.

There were, the source added, “loads of leaving parties” and unplanned social events that took place in Downing Street throughout the second and third lockdowns.

Separately, the BBC said it had talked to someone who attended the 18 December event and recounted that several dozen people, including the press and events teams, played party games and were served food and drink, with the gathering going on beyond midnight, despite a mood described by the source as “downbeat”.

At the time of the November event, meeting indoors or in private gardens was not allowed under pandemic rules, while individuals were permitted to meet only one other person from another household outside in a public place. Pubs, restaurants and shops were closed and people were asked to stay at home unless there was a specific reason to leave, such as work or education at the time.

At the time of the 18 December party, London was under the top level of Covid restrictions – tier 3 – meaning the only permitted indoor social mixing outside your own household was with a support bubble.

Responding to Starmer’s question about whether parties had been held inside Downing Street, Johnson did not deny it, saying only: “What I can tell the right honourable gentleman is that all guidance was followed completely in No 10.”

Starmer replied that the rules then in place were “very clear” that work Christmas lunches or parties should not take place, adding: “Does the prime minister really expect the country to believe that while people were banned from seeing loved ones at Christmas last year, it was fine for him and his friends to throw a boozy party in Downing Street?”

After PMQs, Johnson’s press secretary gave a sometimes confusing series of responses at a media briefing, repeatedly refusing to explain why No 10 said it did not recognise the reports about the parties, and how they could have met Covid rules at the time.

“We’re just saying we don’t recognise these reports,” she said. Asked if that meant they were false, she answered: “We don’t recognise these reports and all Covid rules have been followed.”

Asked to explain, she added: “I don’t have anything else to add to what I’ve said already ... I’m not going to get into individual pieces of speculation from a year ago.”

Related: Tell us: have travel restrictions affected hospitality in the UK?

Starmer said the claims about the parties illustrated the wider issue of Johnson and his government setting out Covid rules for the public while not abiding by these themselves.

Addressing Johnson, the Labour leader pointed out the lack of mask-wearing by some Conservative backbenchers behind him, saying: “As ever: one rule for them, another rule for everybody else.”

At the peak of the first lockdown, Johnson was accused of undermining trust in the rules in sticking by Cummings, then his chief adviser, despite the Guardian and Mirror revealing that Cummings travelled from London to Durham with Covid symptoms in breach of the rules at the time.

Cummings was particularly mocked after explaining he had driven with his wife and son to the local beauty spot of Barnard Castle on his wife’s birthday in April 2020, where he was spotted, purely to test his eyesight. Cummings later said he had not been wholly truthful in his explanations, and that he had moved his family for security reasons.

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