The home secretary, Priti Patel, has accused a senior Tory MP of breaching Covid-19 rules after he attended a Christmas dinner for 27 people at a private members’ club.
Tobias Ellwood, a former Foreign Office minister who chairs the influential Commons defence select committee, attended an event at the Cavalry and Guards Club in London on Tuesday evening hours before the capital moved into tier 3. Only a day earlier in parliament he called on the government to review its plans to relax restrictions for Christmas to avoid a third wave in the new year.
The dinner, in Piccadilly, was held by the Iraq Britain Business Council (IBBC) and was initially described as a “Christmas party” on its website before the reference was removed.
Ellwood, MP for Bournemouth East, defended his actions, telling the Daily Mail, which first reported the story, that it was a “business meeting” allowed under tier 2 restrictions that applied at the time. “I would not be attending a Christmas party, it was a business meeting,” he told the newspaper. “I went there to meet business people and that is what it was. The club went to extreme lengths so that as a business function it was absolutely Covid compliant.”
However, asked if Ellwood’s actions were an “egregious” breach of the rules, Patel told ITV News on Thursday: “Well, it is. Of course it is, exactly that.” Asked to again confirm she believed it was a breach, Patel added: “Having dinner ... outside of the rules with a large number of people is a breach of the regulations.”
Priti Patel tells @carldinnen 'of course' Tobias Ellwood attending a Christmas dinner was an egregious breach of Covid regulations
The Conservative MP is accused of giving a speech at an event with 27 guests in London earlier this week https://t.co/5LsjpiFvOl pic.twitter.com/v4WPqVOjvM
— ITV News Politics (@ITVNewsPolitics) December 17, 2020
Asked what penalty Ellwood should face, Patel replied: “There are fixed penalty notices. I don’t know the details as to where this happened or the location, but I’m sure ... as it is a breach, that will be followed up.” But she declined to say whether it was a Conservative party disciplinary matter, adding: “That is something I’m not getting into because I simply don’t know the full details.”
Boris Johnson’s spokesman backed Patel’s criticism of Ellwood’s behaviour. “The prime minister has been clear throughout the pandemic that it’s vital for everybody to abide by the rules in order to suppress the virus, and therefore protect the NHS and save lives,” he said.
After Patel’s interview, Ellwood tweeted a statement in which he explained he had been invited to give an address at the dinner in his role as chair of the defence select committee. “We still have troops based in Iraq and the security situation is deteriorating. I work hard to leverage every opportunity to further my understanding of international foreign policy and security matters. I gleaned extremely useful intelligence from this gathering about what is happening on the ground and wider issues affecting the Middle East,” he said.
“I appreciate, given the current challenges, some will question the wisdom of my attendance. I am sorry that coverage of my well-intentioned attendance may have muddied the government’s clear message as we head towards Christmas. Whilst the event was fully Covid compliant – perceptions count. Something I will be more conscious of in conducting my portfolio duties during the difficult months ahead.”
Apols re my well intentioned attendance at an Iraqi/British Business event.
It was fully Covid compliant & helpful to learn more about where Iraq’s heading as UK troops are still there.
But during this challenging time perceptions count. Something I’m now very more conscious of. pic.twitter.com/fAbEwILmna
— Tobias Ellwood MP (@Tobias_Ellwood) December 17, 2020
The government’s guidance for tier 2 says: “Gatherings for work purposes are only allowed where they are reasonably necessary. If meetings take place in the workplace, workplaces should be set up to meet the Covid-19-secure guidelines. Meals to socialise with work colleagues are not permitted.”
Separately, the guidance says: “Business events are permitted, but capacity should be restricted to whichever is lower: 50% capacity of 2,000 people outdoors or 1,000 people indoors.”
Meanwhile, Patel has urged people to consider cancelling Christmas plans that involve travelling to visit family or friends, in another ratcheting up of government warnings about the relaxation of coronavirus rules.
The home secretary said that while, under law, people could mix in up to three households for five days over Christmas, people who had made plans to travel long distances should now not do this. “I would urge people to change,” Patel told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I won’t be seeing my parents this Christmas. My parents live in a different part of the country and I will not travel to see them.
“I want to protect them, I don’t want to be spreading the virus. I feel I will take that responsibility and others will make that judgment too.”
While Patel insisted the government was right to keep the Christmas rules unchanged, she appealed for people to be cautious.
“We would urge everyone to be conscientious and to make the appropriate plans and the appropriate changes to their plans as well, hence the point about having a smaller and shorter Christmas,” she said.
“We’re urging people not to travel. Why would you travel? If you’re in a low-tier area, why would you travel into a high-tier area? So people will exercise their judgment.”