The woman who led the Government unit tasked with drawing up Covid-19 restrictions was thrown a “boozy” leaving party during the Christmas lockdown, it can be disclosed.
“Dozens” of officials from Cabinet Office’s Covid-19 taskforce attended the event on Dec 17 2020, to mark the departure of Kate Josephs, the director-general at the time, The Telegraph has been told.
The revelation comes after No 10 was forced to issue an apology to the Queen on Friday, after this newspaper revealed that two parties were held in Downing Street the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral.
Confirming that an apology had been issued to Buckingham Palace over the April 16 events, a No 10 spokesman told reporters it was “deeply regrettable that this took place at a time of national mourning”.
The parties are now being investigated by Sue Gray as part of her probe into multiple allegations of lockdown-breaking parties.
On Friday, sources confirmed that the Dec 17 party for Ms Josephs, who is now the chief executive of Sheffield City Council, is also being examined.
A source who worked closely with Ms Josephs said on Friday “she literally wrote the rules”. They also claimed that she had played a leading role in the negotiations with local areas over the tiered system, which remained in force at the time of her leaving do.
“She led the negotiations with all the local areas in the tiered system, such as with Andy Burnham, and maintained a chart of the rules in every part of the country,” they added.
The taskforce plays a key role in drawing up potential measures to control the spread of Covid-19, as well as compiling briefings and papers for ministers to discuss at key Cabinet committees.
As director-general, Ms Josephs oversaw the work of the taskforce and is understood to have reported directly to Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, for most of her tenure.
Those present at the Dec 17 party are alleged to have gathered in the taskforce’s office in 70 Whitehall, where they consumed alcohol.
A source with knowledge of the incident also alleged that Mr Case was invited to the event, although the Cabinet Office said “categorically” that he did not attend.
It took place on the same evening that Mr Case’s own staff held a gathering in his private office, and 24 hours before Number 10 staff hosted their own Christmas Party.
At the time of the event London had just entered tier three restrictions, with parties banned and people prohibited from mixing indoors with anyone outside their household or support bubble.
On the day of the party, the Government shared official guidance, which stated: “Although there are exemptions for work purposes, 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 Josephs, who was awarded the Companion of the Order of the Bath in the Queen’s Birthday honours last June in recognition of her exemplary public service, left the Government the following day.
After being approached by this newspaper, Ms Josephs said she was “truly sorry that I did this and for the anger that people will feel as a result”.
Confirming she was “co-operating fully” with the investigation, she said: “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.
“Sheffield has suffered greatly during this pandemic, and I apologise unreservedly. The specific facts of this event will be considered in the context of the Cabinet Office investigation. I did not attend any events at 10 Downing Street.
“I will not be able to respond to any further questions until the Cabinet Office investigation is complete.”
Meanwhile, Terry Fox, the leader of Sheffield City Council, expressed his “deep disappointment” in response, adding: “People will rightly feel angry and let down. I get that completely.”
Latest ‘partygate’ revelations shake Downing Street
The event was the second of two gatherings that took place in the Cabinet Office that evening.
Just a few dozen metres away, in a separate room, a group of officials working for Mr Case were also taking part in an event in his private office where alcohol and snacks were bought by attendees.
The following evening, on Dec 18, dozens of officials and aides hosted an alleged Christmas Party in No 10, during which James Slack, Mr Johnson’s director of communications gave a thank you speech and handed out awards.
As the Downing Street gathering was getting underway, Ms Josephs marked her final day in government by posing for a photograph outside the front door of Number 10.
In a message posted on her social media, she wrote: “Last day today, extremely hard to leave the incredible colleagues who make up the Covid taskforce, it has been an honour and a privilege to serve alongside them.”
Set up in the spring of 2020, the taskforce’s duties include providing support and advice to the Prime Minister, including the latest data on Covid-19, as well as working with departments across government on the UK’s overarching strategy.
Ms Josephs was appointed to the role of director general in July 2020, having previously served as director of the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
She is understood to have reported directly to Mr Case until 2020, when James Bowler, a senior civil servant, was appointed to lead the taskforce as second permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office.
Separately, Mr Johnson also faced questions on Friday over whether he broke Covid rules on travelling between second homes, after No 10 confirmed he had moved between Chequers and Downing Street at the start of the first lockdown.
It came after the website Tortoise reported that the Prime Minister and his wife had visited their grace-and-favour home in Buckinghamshire during the 10 days from Mar 16 2020, the date when he asked the public to stop non-essential travel.
On Mar 23 the first lockdown was announced and three days later people were legally prohibited from visiting their homes.
However, Downing Street said on Friday that at the time Mrs Johnson was “heavily pregnant and had been placed in a vulnerable category and advised to minimise social contact.”
The spokesperson added: “In line with clinical guidance and to minimise the risk to her they were based at Chequers during this period, with the Prime Minister commuting to Downing Street to work.”