Met Police Covid fine for ‘partying’ while sitting at desk was ‘slap in face’, says cleared office worker

·5-min read
Met Police Covid fine for ‘partying’ while sitting at desk was ‘slap in face’, says cleared office worker

An office worker who was accused by the Met Police of “partying” during the pandemic when he was sat at his desk at work has been cleared of breaking Covid rules.

Gregory Vooght, 30, said he was working late preparing an important presentation in March last year when police officers arrived and accused him of involvement in a St Patrick Day celebration.

He said it was a “slap in the face” when he was handed a fine over the incident, and took the case to court in order to prove his innocence.

After a trial at Westminster magistrates court, Mr Vooght was acquitted of a Covid rule breach after he said he had a “reasonable excuse” for being at the office, on the fourth floor of Market Towers in Nine Elms.

“Every month I have a financial review for the directors. Most months I end up staying late to complete the review. I was working on the review and still there”, he said.

The Met Police came across a virtually deserted office in Nine Elms where a suspected St Patrick’s Day party had been happening (MPS/CPS London)
The Met Police came across a virtually deserted office in Nine Elms where a suspected St Patrick’s Day party had been happening (MPS/CPS London)

“When the first officer came, I said ‘I’m working, is this against the rules?’ He was kind of incessant – ‘you are having a party, you are having a party’.”

Asked why he challenged the police fine, Mr Vooght said: “It was the principle, I had been going to the same office, working, during Covid.

“To be given a fine when you are at work was a bit of a slap in the face.”

Construction firms had been encouraged by the government to stay open where possible during the pandemic, with social distancing and other safety measures in place.

Mr Vooght’s case shines a light on the forthright approach of Met officers when investigating suspected Covid breaches, at a time when it still faces accusations that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was not fully probed in the Partygate scandal.

Cabinet Office photo showing Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a gathering in 10 Downing Street for the departure of a special adviser during lockdown (Sue Gray Report/Cabinet Office/PA) (PA Media)
Cabinet Office photo showing Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a gathering in 10 Downing Street for the departure of a special adviser during lockdown (Sue Gray Report/Cabinet Office/PA) (PA Media)

Mr Johnson was handed one Fixed Penalty Notice for his June 2020 birthday party, but did not face police action over other Downing Street gatherings – including when he was pictured raising a toast at a colleague’s leaving party and others at the gathering were fined. He insisted it was part of his work duties to attend the event.

Video evidence in Mr Vooght’s case, obtained by the Evening Standard, shows two police officers – called out to reports of an illegal party - come across a makeshift bar in lounge area of the office.

The only person in the room at that time told police “I had a meeting with a colleague here”, and later another man says to officers: “I work with these people. What’s the difference if I have a cup of tea or have a beer?”

PC Holly Barker instantly replied: “The difference is you are not supposed to be doing it full stop right now. Right now, you are not working.”

After pointing out they are not wearing masks, the officer says: “We had a call saying there’s a party in the location, celebrating St Patricks Day.

Tower blocks under construction as part of the VNEB (Vauxhall, Nine Elms and Battersea) development in south London (PA)
Tower blocks under construction as part of the VNEB (Vauxhall, Nine Elms and Battersea) development in south London (PA)

“I can see from what you’re wearing, the alcohol, the fact your friend’s plastered right now, that there’s a party OK.

“For that reason, I’m reporting you all for breaches of Covid regulations OK.”

Mr Vooght, an accounting and finance graduate with a masters in quantity surveying, said the office he shared with lots of other contractors on the Market towers project had been set up at the under-construction tower block.

He told the court he had gone to get a beer from the lounge as his work went into the evening, taking the drink back to his desk to continue preparing for the morning meeting.

“It takes the edge off, it’s nice to have a drink if you are working late”, he said. “Some people were milling around, some people were working. There was no party.”

During the interaction with police, at around 8.30pm, one person is heard saying “we are literally working”. PC Barker conceded in court she had not made any effort to investigate if Mr Vooght and others had a “reasonable excuse” for being in the office.

The other police officer who Mr Vooght said “beckoned” him from his desk to the lounge area to be questioned was not called as a witness in the trial.

“There is a big difference between having a party with co-workers and having a beer while working”, said Mr Vooght’s barrister Iwona Boesche.

Mr Vooght was initially issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice over the incident, which happened on March 17, 2021, but wrote to police insisting he had been wrongly targeted.

Quantity Surveyor Greg Vooght was wrongly accused of breaking Covid rules (MPS/CPS London)
Quantity Surveyor Greg Vooght was wrongly accused of breaking Covid rules (MPS/CPS London)

Despite his pleas, police then commenced a prosecution under the Single Justice Procedure, claiming Mr Vooght had failed to respond to the Fixed Penalty Notice. He was convicted in a behind-closed-doors hearing, and then had to appear in person before magistrates for the case to be reopened and fixed for a trial.

Finding him not guilty of attending a gathering in a Tier 4 area, magistrate Paul Brooks said holes in the police evidence meant they “can’t be sure that you were not working”.

“PC Barker was unable to assist with your whereabouts prior to the time the officers arrived at the scene”, he said.

“You gave evidence that you were working at your desk in a separate room and a point came while you were working where you went into the lounge area and poured a beer and returned to your desk.

Westminster Magistrates’ Court (Nick Ansell/PA) (PA Archive)
Westminster Magistrates’ Court (Nick Ansell/PA) (PA Archive)

“You went on to say a point came when you were beckoned by a police officer, not PC Barker, to go into the lounge area which you complied with, carrying a beer.”

Scotland Yard is embroiled in a legal challenge from former Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lord Paddick and the Good Law Project about its handling of the Partygate scandal, after being accused of failing to adequately investigate Boris Johnson’s involvement in three gatherings at Downing Street.

The Prime Minister was not sent questionnaires by the force over two of the gatherings, but the Met ultimately concluded he had not broken the Covid rules.

Scotland Yard insists its partygate probe was carried out properly and lawfully, and is defending its actions.