A leaked photo of staff eating cheese and drinking wine in the garden of No 10 Downing Street during Britain's first lockdown showed “people at work, talking about work”, Boris Johnson has said.
The British prime minister’s claims came after the deputy prime minister and justice minister Dominic Raab had stressed the Downing Street garden was a place of work.
The photo, obtained by the Guardian, showed Mr Johnson, his then-fiancee Carrie, and 17 other staff members in the garden on May 15th, 2020, with bottles of wine and a cheeseboard on a table in front of the prime minister.
Responding to questions about the photo, Mr Johnson said: “Those were people at work talking about work.”
He added: “This is where I live, it is where I work. Those were meetings of people at work, talking about work.”
Mr Johnson stressed that it was “vital” to focus on the latest public health messaging about Covid, encouraging people to get their booster jab, or come forward if they are unvaccinated.
He also said his government “won’t hesitate to take action” if further measures are needed to curb the spread of Omicron.
On Monday morning, Mr Raab stressed the garden was a “place of work” and that it was not “against the regulations”, and a Downing Street spokesman said the photo showed colleagues “meeting to discuss work”.
He told Times Radio: “Downing Street used that garden as a place of work. They used it for work meetings. The photo is from a day when, I think, the prime minister had just done a press conference.
“And sometimes they’ll have a drink after a long day or a long week. And that’s not against the regulations.”
No 10 has also insisted work meetings often took place in the garden, with Mr Johnson’s official spokesman saying: “These were individuals in Downing Street – officials, staff – who were meeting after the most recent press conference that day, so meeting out of hours.
“There were meetings taking place both inside and outside No 10. This shows colleagues who were required to be in work meeting following a press conference to discuss work.”
Asked why Mr Johnson’s wife was there, the spokesman said: “Downing Street is also a private residence for both the prime minister and chancellor.
“The prime minister’s wife has use of her garden. It is effectively her garden.”
At the time the photo was taken, restrictions on meeting others were still in place and earlier that day, England's then-health minister Matt Hancock had told the daily coronavirus briefing: “People can now spend time outdoors and exercise as often as you like – and you can meet one other person from outside your household in an outdoor, public place. But please keep two metres apart.”
When asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether he believed “someone or some group” was “dripping out leaks to bring Boris Johnson down”, Mr Raab said “it’s certainly being done with an animus”, but added he was against “speculating on these things”.
The alleged gathering is one of a number which have been reported across Whitehall during coronavirus restrictions.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray has been tasked with investigating the reports after Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was removed from the probe after it was revealed he had known about a quiz held in his department.