A photograph of Boris Johnson, his wife and up to 17 staff in the Downing Street garden during the first lockdown shows people “having a drink after a busy set of work meetings” and acting entirely within the rules of the time, Dominic Raab has said.
Other workplaces would have done the same during this period and this would not have breached any rules, the justice secretary argued.
Raab’s defence of the events of 15 May 2020, shown in a picture shared with the Guardian, appears to differ from the Downing Street version, which stated that the image showed people still taking part in work meetings.
Asked about the photo, Raab told BBC One’s Breakfast: “I know how hard that No 10 team were working, as the hub, the fulcrum of the crisis response. I think there’s a lot of exhausted people, and they, as people do in work, were having a drink after the formal business had been done.”
Questioned about whether NHS staff did the same, Raab said he accepted there was a difference for people who worked in clinical settings. He added: “But I’m sure that in other offices around the country, for those people that had to work in the office, then that would have been allowed. It was very clear, it wasn’t against the regulations.”
Asked how this was consistent with strict distancing policies in force then, which in a social setting allowed for no more than two people from different households to meet outdoors, the justice secretary said: “This is a workplace. They had a drink after what had been a gruelling day, and period, and that was consistent with the rules. This wasn’t a social occasion. This was people having a drink after a busy set of work meetings and the business of the day.”
On Friday Downing Street denied anything social took place on the evening of 15 May last year, after a Covid press conference hosted by Matt Hancock, then the health secretary. It said Johnson “held a series of meetings throughout the afternoon”, including in the garden.
Asked about the photo, a Downing Street spokesperson said on Sunday: “As we said last week, work meetings often take place in the Downing Street garden in the summer months. On this occasion there were staff meetings after a No 10 press conference.”
The rules in the first lockdown were not very specific about workplaces, in part as so few offices were open. But they did say that in-person meetings should take place only if “absolutely necessary”, and that if that was the case, a 2-metre distance should be kept at all times.
Asked why the photo appeared to show people standing more closely together, Raab appeared to argue that this mattered less as they were outdoors, something not mentioned in the guidance: “There is significant difference. It’s always been clear from the public health advice that outdoors you’ve got a much greater chance of reducing the risk because of the ventilation that comes with it.”
The shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, claimed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the photo did seem to suggest rules being broken. “I do think there is evidence of law-breaking … The country is sick of it,” she said.
Speaking earlier to Sky News, Raab said it was perfectly normal for Johnson’s then fiancee and now wife, Carrie, to be next to him in the garden. She appeared to be holding their newborn baby at a table with a cheeseboard and wine.
“No 10 Downing Street and the garden is used for work,” he said. “It was used throughout that week. I think the PM is seen just after the press conference. It’s fundamentally a place of work. No 10 is also the residence of the prime minister. He’s got a very young family, and I think if you begrudge his wife coming down in a break from the business of the day, I don’t think that’s right.”