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What exactly is a “work event”? Desperate ministers have been using the term to defend Boris Johnson’s conduct in relation to the infamous Downing Street party. The party was a work event, they say, as though that conveys legal legitimacy. The Prime Minister himself claimed on Wednesday that a boozy Downing Street party he attended during the first lockdown on 20 May was a “work event” that “technically” fell within the guidance.
Ministers are using this rhetorical device as cover in media interviews, and weirdly not being challenged on it. Perhaps there is so much government weirdness and implausibility to process that the simple question – what is this work event and where in the rules was it allowed? – goes unasked.
There was no such “work event” justification or excuse in the rules or Covid laws at the time that allowed a 30-plus drinks gathering.
For Britons there was work, conducted in the office only if deemed essential, and even then there were clear rules on minimising contact. Work meetings were permitted for those in the workplace, but employees had to ensure that only those who really needed to be there should attend. Ministers issued thundering statements demanding compliance from businesses and employees.
Socialising such as it was in Britain in May 2020 happened at home with family or in the park, or on Zoom with friends. Or in the park with one other person. It was a lonely time for millions of Britons.
Again, there was no such thing as a “work event” allowed by law. There was no mention of this hybrid half way between a meeting (for essential business) and full-blown party at the time because it wasn’t permitted.
The week before the party, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) issued a checklist called Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) giving guidance for people who work in or run offices.
The risk assessment has no mention of the term “work event”, nor any justification for socialising in such areas.
It states: “Workers should try to minimise all meetings and other gatherings in the workplace” and that “only absolutely necessary participants should attend meetings and should maintain two-meter separation throughout.”
Another step the government asked businesses to take was “managing occupancy levels”. However, Martin Reynolds, the Principal Private Secretary, invited more than 100 aides to Number 10 on a day when Oliver Dowden, the then Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, told a press conference that “you can meet one person outside of your household”.
In terms of “moving around buildings and worksites”, the public were told to reduce “job and location rotation”.
There are still unknowns about what exactly happened that evening. Was social distancing abided by at all times? Reports suggest not. Were arrival and departure times staggered to reduce crowding? Did those running the event erect any COVID signposts or markings to reduce congestion?
Two rules, however, appear to have been followed. In the section on “Common Areas” workers are asked to use “safe outside areas for breaks” – in this case, the garden which given its size and dimensions was large enough for the 30 or so who attended. Employees also brought “their own food” and, by that logic, their own booze.
Number 10 is, of course, a workspace, but it is also the official residence of Johnson and his wife Carrie. According to Section 73 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, pandemic regulations could have been interpreted as not applying to Crown Land – literally making it one rule for “them” and another for “us”. If this is the defence Number 10 plans to use, it’s pretty thin. Especially when the monarch dutifully followed the rules, and even mourned alone at her husband’s funeral.
Ultimately, it will be extremely hard to argue that the gathering was focused on work. As Reynolds wrote in that now infamous email: “After what has been an incredibly busy period, we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the Number 10 garden.”
That’s a party, though wanting to avoid a police investigation and fines, Number 10 has alighted on this bogus idea of a ” work event.”
Broadcasters should ask ministers to define a “work event” in the context of May 2020, because no such concept, no such get out, existed in the laws these people imposed on the rest of us.