Department for Education admits holding Christmas ‘gathering’ last December

Department for Education admits holding Christmas ‘gathering’ last December
The department said it accepts ‘it would have been better not to have gathered in this way’

A government department has admitted it held a Christmas “gathering” last December, when London was under Tier 2 coronavirus rules.

The Department for Education said the party took place in its office building, at a time social mixing between households was banned and the number of people in one indoor space was limited to six by law.

The department’s admission came after former education secretary Gavin Williamson was reported by The Mirror to have thrown a party and delivered a short speech at the event on 10 December last year.

A DfE spokeswoman said: “On December 10 2020 a gathering of colleagues who were already present at the office – and who had worked together throughout the pandemic, as they couldn’t work from home – took place in the DfE office building in London at a time when the city was subject to Tier 2 restrictions.

“The gathering was used to thank those staff for their efforts during the pandemic.

“Drinks and snacks were brought by those attending and no outside guests or supporting staff were invited or present.

“While this was work-related, looking back we accept it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time.”

The DfE’s statement came hours after a leaked video was aired by ITV showing Downing Street staff joking about holding a banned Christmas party a few days prior, one they later denied having.

In the video from last December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s then spokesperson Allegra Stratton said that the party in Downing Street “was not socially distanced” and added: “It wasn’t a party, it was just cheese and wine.”

On Tuesday, Downing Street insisted again that there was no Christmas party and that Covid rules had been followed at all times.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urged Mr Johnson to “come clean and apologise”.

He added that for aides “to lie and to laugh about those lies is shameful”.

The footage obtained by ITV News showed Ms Stratton answering a question from fellow special adviser Ed Oldfield at a mock press conference on 22 December last year about a Downing Street Christmas party the previous Friday.

Mr Oldfield asked her: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?”

Ms Stratton replied “I went home” before appearing to consider what the correct answer should be.

Mr Oldfield then asked: “Would the Prime Minister condone having a Christmas party?”

Ms Stratton asked “what’s the answer” and staff in the press room appeared to suggest ideas, with one saying “it wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine”.

“Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting,” Ms Stratton replied, to laughter in the room.

Ms Stratton then noted “this is recorded”, adding: “This fictional party was a business meeting … and it was not socially distanced.”

London and much of the south-east were put under stricter Tier 4 rules a day after the mock press conference in 9 Downing Street’s media room, which was refurbished at a cost of £2.6 million in preparation for televised Covid updates before the project was abandoned.

In Tier 4 areas, residents were only be allowed to celebrate Christmas with members of their own household and support bubbles, and were not allowed to travel to other areas to see family and friends.

The Metropolitan Police has confirmed officers are reviewing the leaked video in relation to “alleged breaches” of coronavirus regulations.

In response to ITV’s report, a Downing Street spokesman said: “There was no Christmas party. Covid rules have been followed at all times.”