Exclusive: Head of government Covid rules unit held ‘boozy’ party during Christmas restrictions

The former head of the government unit responsible for drawing up Covid-19 restrictions was given a “boozy” leaving party just days before Christmas, it can be disclosed.

The Telegraph has been told that “dozens” of officials from the Cabinet Office’s Covid-19 taskforce attended the event on Dec 17 2020 while the country was still under draconian restrictions.

Those present are alleged to have gathered in the taskforce’s office in 70 Whitehall that evening, where they consumed alcohol and held a party to mark the departure of Kate Josephs, the then director-general.

A source with knowledge of the incident alleged that Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, was invited to the event, although the Cabinet Office said “categorically” that he did not attend.

It took place on the same evening that Mr Case’s own staff held a gathering in his private office, and 24 hours before Number 10 staff hosted their own Christmas Party. 

At the time of the event, London had just entered tier three restrictions, with parties banned and people prohibited from mixing indoors with anyone outside their household or support bubble.

On the day of the party, the Government tweeted its official guidance, which stated: “Although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier”.

Ms Josephs, who was awarded the Companion of the Order of the Bath in the Queen’s Birthday honours last June in recognition of her exemplary public service, left Government the following day.

Sue Gray to investigate 

On Friday sources confirmed that the event was now being investigated by Sue Gray as part of her investigation into multiple allegations of lockdown-breaking parties, which are now thought to total 14.

The disclosure is particularly damaging for Boris Johnson because the taskforce is the central body responsible for coordinating the Government’s response to the pandemic. 

The taskforce also plays a key role in drawing up potential measures to control the spread of Covid-19, as well as compiling briefings and papers for ministers to discuss at key Cabinet committees.

The disclosure is likely to raise alarm bells within the Civil Service, with senior Whitehall officials concerned the body is becoming increasingly embroiled in the scandal as more details emerge of officials hosting or participating in events. 

It comes just hours after this newspaper revealed that two parties were held in Downing Street the night before the Queen was pictured sitting alone at the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh. 

The event was the second of two gatherings that took place in the Cabinet Office that evening.

Just a few dozen metres away, in a separate room, a group of officials working for Mr Case were also taking part in an event in his private office where alcohol and snacks were bought by attendees.

The following evening, on Dec 18, dozens of officials and aides hosted an alleged Christmas party in No 10, during which Boris Johnson’s director of communications gave a thank you speech and handed out awards. 

Kate Josephs marked her final day in Government by posing for a photograph outside the front door of Number 10

As the Downing Street gathering was getting under way, Ms Josephs marked her final day in Government by posing for a photograph outside the front door of Number 10. 

In a message posted on her social media, she wrote: “Last day today, extremely hard to leave the incredible colleagues who make up the Covid taskforce, it has been an honour and a privilege to serve alongside them.”

Ms Josephs, who now serves as the chief executive officer of Sheffield City Council, declined to comment when approached by The Telegraph. 

I am today making a statement. I am truly sorry. pic.twitter.com/xWByiiKfV3

— Kate Josephs (@katejosephs) January 14, 2022

However, while declining to say whether she believed the event broke Covid-19 rules, Ms Josephs confirmed she was “cooperating fully” with the Cabinet Office’s investigation. The Cabinet Office declined to comment.

Multiple gatherings in No 10 

Set up in the spring of 2020, the taskforce’s duties include providing support and advice to the Prime Minister, including the latest data on Covid-19, as well as working with departments across Government on the UK’s overarching strategy. 

Ms Josephs was appointed to the role of director general in July 2020, having previously served as director of the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

She is understood to have reported directly to Mr Case until 2020, when James Bowler, a senior civil servant, was appointed to lead the taskforce as second permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office.

The gathering on Dec 17 is now being investigated by Ms Gray, with the total number of alleged gatherings now under scrutiny believed to total at least nine. 

They span from November 2020 through to April 2021, including multiple gatherings in Number 10 and the Downing Street garden; two events in the Cabinet Office; and one in the Department for Education. 

A former director-general of the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team, Ms Gray was asked to take over the probe shortly before Christmas. 

The change of leadership came after Mr Case was forced to step aside after it emerged that his own office had held a gathering on Dec 17. 

The party, organised by a private secretary in Mr Case’s team, took place outside his personal office. It began at 5.30pm and was listed in digital calendar invitations as “Christmas party!”.

The disclosure and the emergence of new gatherings led to the inquiry being delayed until after Christmas, with Whitehall sources now suggesting that Ms Gray’s report will not be ready until the “end of next week” at the earliest.

However, the investigation team is understood to have still been interviewing people throughout this week, with the emergence of two new parties on April 16 now likely to lead to further delays. 

On Thursday, it was reported that Ms Gray has not yet found sufficient evidence of criminality to refer the matter to the police, with Scotland Yard also stating it would not launch into its own probe unless she did so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *