Covid rules taskforce chief admits holding leaving drinks during lockdown

The former head of a government unit responsible for drawing up Covid rules has apologised for organising a leaving drinks event during 2020’s Christmas lockdown.

Kate Joseph, ex-chief of the Cabinet Office Covid taskforce, admitted she had gathered colleagues together for her own leaving event on 17 December 2020.

It took place while strict curbs on socialising remained in force in London. “I am truly sorry that I did this and for the anger people will feel as a result,” Ms Josephs said in a statement on Friday.

Ms Josephs, who is chief executive of Sheffield City Council, said she was co-operating with the ongoing investigation into government parties carried out by senior civil servant Sue Gray.

“On the evening of 17 December, I gathered with colleagues that were at work that day, with drinks, in our office in the Cabinet Office, to mark my leaving the Civil Service,” Ms Josephs said in a statement posted on Twitter.

“I am truly sorry that I did this and for the anger that people will feel as a result. Sheffield has suffered greatly during this pandemic, and I apologise unreservedly.”

Pressure is mounting on Boris Johnson amid fresh allegations that two drinks gatherings were held at Downing Street last April – the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, while strict Covid restrictions were in place.

London had just entered tier 3 curbs at the time of Ms Joseph’s leaving do, with all parties banned and the public prohibited from mixing indoors with anyone outside their support bubble.

According to The Telegraph, dozens of officials from the Cabinet Office’s Covid-19 taskforce attended the event, while the country was in lockdown.

On the very same day, the government’s official Twitter feed replied to a query asking if employers could hold Christmas parties at the end of the working day.

It said: “You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.”

Ms Joseph added: “I have been cooperating fully with the Cabinet Office investigations and I do not want to pre-empt the findings of the investigation.”

The local government chief asked “that people allow the Cabinet Office to complete its investigation. I will not be able to respond to any further questions until the Cabinet Office investigation is complete”.

Leader of Sheffield City Council, the Labour councillor Terry Fox, said people in the city would feel “angry and let down” but stopped short of calling for Ms Joseph to resign from her current role. “We await the findings of the investigation,” he said.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, told The Independent: “Every new allegation that comes out is bad news.

“For everybody in the population who obeyed the rules, but particularly those who weren’t able to say goodbye to loved ones when they died, it creates a very bad impression,” Sir Geoffrey added.

Asked if Boris Johnson would have to go over the “partygate” scandal, the senior Tory figure said: “We must wait and see what Sue Gray says. I don’t want to speculate until I’ve seen that report.”

Earlier on Friday, foreign secretary Liz Truss said the British public should “move on” from the scandal over parties held at No 10 during the pandemic.

Defending the PM, Ms Truss said: “I think we now need to move on and talk about how we are going to sort out issues” – adding that people should “wait for the results of the Sue Gray inquiry”.

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