Boris Johnson has defended a picture of himself and his staff with cheese and wine in the No 10 garden at a time of tight restrictions on social gatherings last May.
The picture showed 19 people, including Mr Johnson and his wife Carrie, enjoying wine and cheese, with little sign of social distancing and no notebooks or laptops in evidence.
Questioned about what they were doing on 15 May 202, the prime minister insisted that the photograph showed: “Those were people at work, talking about work.”
Asked whether he normally has meetings with cheese and wine, Mr Johnson said: “These are meetings of people at work. This is where I live, it’s where I work. Those are meetings of people at work, talking about work.”
Grilled for a third time about the garden gathering last May – and whether he was relaxed about peopler drinking alcohol while at work – Mr Johnson said: “I’ve said what I’ve said about that.”
Mr Johnson’s explanation appeared to contradict comments made earlier by his deputy, Dominic Raab, who suggested that the gathering was held after work had finished.
Mr Raab defended the event, insisting it complied with rules because the Downing Street garden is “used for work meetings”. But the deputy PM also admitted: “Sometimes they’ll have a drink after a long day or a long week.”
The No 10 garden gathering during lockdown is likely to have broken Covid regulations, a top legal expert said.
Adam Wagner, a human-rights barrister and leading expert on Covid regulations, told Sky News: “Having heard Dominic Raab say that this was a drink after the formal business event had ended, it doesn’t sound convincing as a work gathering. It sounds a lot like a social gathering.”
Mr Wagner said Covid laws meant people were only allowed to mix for work “where it could not reasonably be done at home”. He added: “It seems quite an obvious social gathering, which weren’t permitted at the time.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was “a real stretch to pretend that is a work meeting” – noting the photo leaked to The Guardian was taken during a period when people could not attend funerals of loved ones.
“I think there are very serious questions to be answered,” said Sir Keir. “Just look at the photo and ask yourself is that a work meeting going on or is that a social event? I think the answer is pretty obvious.”
No 10 officials have suggested that the photograph was taken inside No 11 from the offices used by chancellor Rishi Sunak’s team which overlooks the Downing Street garden.
“It has to be taken by someone associated with the chancellor,” one told The Telegraph. “It is the chancellor’s bit of the Downing Street complex.”
Ex-Labour MP Ed Balls, former economic adviser to Gordon Brown when he was chancellor, posted on Twitter: “I’m pretty sure this is the view from the 11 Downing Street first floor balcony.”
Tory former minister Stephen Hammond told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme that there is “no excuse for breaching rules and guidance” when asked about the leaked photo of staff in the No 10 garden last year.
Mr Hammond said: “If any rules have been broken then a person should apologise and accept that that was a breach of the rules.”
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson has revealed that he is not immediately imposing any further Covid restrictions – but said he would not hesitate to do so if the data on the spread of omicron shows it is necessary.
The PM said that the arguments for and against going beyond the current plan B curbs were still “finely balanced” after a two-hour emergency meeting of cabinet on Monday.
“Unfortunately, I must say to people we will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public and to protect public health and to protect our NHS, and we won’t hesitate to take that action,” he told broadcasters.