'Inconceivable' that bash didn't break rules says East barrister

Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a statement to MPs before Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson making a statement to MPs about a Downing Street "bring your own booze" event in May 2020 - Credit: PA

It seems "inconceivable" a May 2020 drinks bash at Number 10 was not contrary to Covid workplace rules at the time, a leading East Anglian legal expert says.

Barrister Matthew Gowen, a partner at regional law firm Birketts, said gatherings for essential work purposes were permitted - but the guidance was to limit those meetings to only people that were absolutely necessary.

A fierce political storm was unleashed this week after it emerged that a "bring a bottle" drinks bash took place in the garden of Number 10 on May 20, 2020 - during heavy lockdown restrictions. 

Embattled prime minister Boris Johnson apologised to the House of Commons and the public on Wednesday (January 12) - but his words were not enough to stem the tide of anger and growing calls for him to resign over the matter.

"I know the rage they feel with me and with the government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules," he told MPs.

Senior official Sue Gray is carrying out an inquiry into what went on.

The Prime Minister's press secretary insisted Mr Johnson had not been sent the invitation email from his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds encouraging staff to "bring your own booze" to the garden and "make the most of the lovely weather".

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But at just after 6pm on the day of the event - the time the invitation specified for people to gather - Mr Johnson entered the garden to thank staff for their efforts and stayed for 25 minutes.

"I believed implicitly that this was a work event," he said. "With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them.

"I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there are millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way, people who have suffered terribly, people who were forbidden for meeting loved ones at all inside or outside, and to them and to this House I offer my heartfelt apologies."

Matthew Gowen, partner and barrister in Birketts’ regulatory and corporate defence team

Matthew Gowen, partner and barrister in Birketts’ regulatory and corporate defence team, believes the Number 10 bash broke the rules - Credit: Carl Middleditch

Mr Gowen - who is part of Birketts' regulatory and corporate defence team - said at the time of the May 20, 2020, event at Number 10, the regulations banned people from meeting more than one person not from their household outside.

"Strict social distancing measures were also in place," he said.

“The police had powers to issue a £100 fine to any person not complying with the lockdown measures - the fine doubling after each offence.

“The PM has said that he went into the garden (of his home), not having seen the email. He stayed 25 minutes and during that time thanked groups of staff. He has maintained that he thought it was a work event, although has conceded that ‘with hindsight’ he should have sent everyone back inside.

“However, given the invitation to the event, particularly the request to ‘bring a bottle’, it seems inconceivable that the event itself was not contrary to the rules.”

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