No plans to scrap gatherings at government departments
No 10 has refused to share details of staff parties set to be held at Downing Street in the run-up to Christmas, insisting that any “private events” would not be publicly revealed.
The Independent understands that staff Christmas parties will go ahead across Whitehall departments during the festive period – despite growing concern about the spread of the Covid omicron variant.
The Home Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education are among those in which individual teams will hold smaller parties – but there will be no departmental-wide events.
A government source said there were no plans to cancel all the festive gatherings organised across Whitehall in light of the latest data on omicron, saying in-person events would be within current rules.
It comes as Prof Peter Openshaw – a member of the government’s Nervtag group – said he would not feel comfortable attending a party as the “chances of getting infected were too high”.
Asked by reporters if Downing Street would share plans for any staff Christmas party, the prime minister’s spokesman said: “Obviously, events that happen in No 10 that are private events – we wouldn’t inform you.”
The No 10 spokesman added: “We obviously wouldn’t set out details of private functions in No 10 but, as I say, there will be festive events in the run-up to Christmas.”
Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden said the Tories had no intention of cancelling its own Christmas drinks event for staff, and encouraged others continue with their celebrations.
“I don’t intend to cancel it as chairman of the Conservative Party,” he told Sky News. “The message to people, I think, is fairly straightforward … keep calm, carry on with your Christmas plans.”
The Liberal Democrats said individual teams were holding their own Christmas parties, but there would not be a big event at party HQ.
A spokesperson told The Independent: “A decision was taken some time ago to have smaller sit-down dinners instead of larger parties. We will continue to review this.”
The debate over gatherings comes as scientists and medical groups continue to study the possible threat posed by omicron this winter.
The British Medical Association (BMA) has said people should be encouraged to “avoid large groups” and meet outdoors where possible over the festive period.
A study in South Africa has suggested that the variant has “substantial” ability to cause reinfection in people who have previously had Covid. But a CovBoost study found that booster jabs may well offer good protection in the face of the variant.
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police have been asked to launch an investigation into Christmas parties held at Downing Street during last year’s lockdown while strict lockdown rules were still in place.
In a letter to the force’s commissioner Labour MP Barry Gardiner said officers “should investigate the matter further to establish the facts and see if any laws might have been broken”.
Met chief Cressida Dick had said earlier on Friday that she was not aware of any complaints against the prime minister’s office. “If I get a letter, I’ll read a letter,” she told LBC – shortly before Mr Gardiner shared his letter online.