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On the evening of Friday April, 16 2021 Britain was in a period of public mourning.
Union flags on Government buildings across Westminster hung at half-mast to mark the passing of Prince Philip the previous week.
The Queen sitting alone in St George’s Chapel ahead of the funeral for Prince Philip.Credit:AP
With the country in step two of a strict lockdown roadmap that barred indoor mixing mourners were told not to leave flowers because of the COVID threat. A book of condolences was set up online to “reduce the risk of transmission” from physical signings.
In a private chapel in Windsor Castle the Duke’s coffin lay overnight.
The next day the Queen, her face covered by a black mask, would say farewell to her husband of 73 years. With social distancing rules in force, she sat alone.
The atmosphere in Downing Street that Friday evening, however, was quite different. Advisers and civil servants gathered after work for two events to mark the departure of two colleagues.
One was James Slack, Johnson’s director of communications. He had served two Tory prime ministers, a rare carry-over from the Theresa May days, but was leaving after four years to become deputy editor at The Sun.
The other was one of Johnson’s photographers.
Witnesses have told The Daily Telegraph what happened. It is alleged that alcohol was drunk to excess and guests danced. The gatherings stretched late into the night – well beyond midnight, according to one source. They were, according to one guest, undeniably parties.
The two parties merged in Number 10, Downing Street.Credit:Getty
The revelation of the boozy gatherings at the heart of the Government the night before the Duke’s funeral is problematic, not just because of the context of public grief, but because of the COVID restrictions then in place.
The Government’s own guidance read: “You must not socialise indoors except with your household or support bubble. You can meet outdoors, including in gardens, in groups of six people or two households.”
Any defence is likely to centre on the idea that the gatherings were for work, not socialising – a claim being scrutinised by Sue Gray, the civil servant investigating claims about gatherings that allegedly broke lockdown restrictions.
Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, was not in Downing Street that day, a No10 spokesman said. He had departed for Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country house, on Thursday evening and stayed there until Saturday.
Boris Johnson recovered from COVID-19.Credit:Getty
According to those in Downing Street that evening, the gatherings were initially held in different parts of the complex and joined up later. A total of about 30 people attended them, according to one attendee.
Slack finished work for the last time in Downing Street and thanked those present in a farewell speech. Some had worked with him for years through a tumultuous period – not least on trying to deliver Brexit.
Some colleagues joined the celebration via video links, alcohol was consumed and eventually the group drifted into the Downing Street garden, according to sources.
The second gathering for the departing photographer – attended mainly by younger members of staff – spent much of the evening in the basement of Number 10. The room beneath the main suite of offices on the ground floor had limited ventilation – the type of environment scientists say increases the risk of spreading COVID.
Someone was sent to the Co-op in the Strand, a busy street nearby, with a suitcase that was filled with bottles of wine and brought back to Downing Street, according someone present.
In the basement a laptop had been placed on a photocopier and music was blaring out.
Shelley Williams-Walker, Johnson’s head of operations, was at times in charge of the music, according to a witness. The claim was yesterday put to Downing Street, where Ms Williams-Walker still works. No denial has been issued. She was jokingly nicknamed “DJ SWW”, a reference to her initials, according to one present that night.
As the evening wore on, the alcohol still flowing, those celebrating the photographer’s departure headed to the Downing Street garden at around midnight. One present said they feared too much wine was spilling on the carpet as they danced.
In the garden, the two groups marking the departure of Slack and the photographer are said to have merged.
The drinking and chatting allegedly carried on into the early hours of the morning. The gathering is the first allegation of lockdown-breaking in Downing Street in 2021 to have emerged, marking a new front in the row engulfing the Prime Minister. Previous party allegations date from 2020.
In 2021 the country faced some form of restrictions for seven months, starting with a full lockdown in January and ending with a lifting of almost all COVID rules in July.
In a sign that some in Downing Street understood the importance of sticking to the rules, a senior figure present told The Telegraph they had cautioned against holding a leaving do for Slack. Their advice was not taken.
A No 10 spokesman said of Slack’s farewell event: “On this individual’s last day he gave a farewell speech to thank each team for the work they had done to support him, both those who had to be in the office for work and on a screen for those working from home.” The spokesman declined to comment on the photographer’s leaving do.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II looks on the flag draped coffin as she sits alone in St. George’s Chapel during the funeral of Prince Philip at Windsor Castle on April 17.Credit:AP
Hours after the drinking ended in No 10, the Queen and members of the Royal Family gathered in St George’s Chapel for the Duke’s funeral.
Only 30 mourners were allowed to attend because of COVID restrictions. The Prime Minister decided not to attend so that more family members could do so.
A photograph of Johnson dressed in black outside Chequers, arms by his side during a minute’s silence, was posted on his official Twitter account.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II takes her seat alone in St. George’s Chapel during the funeral of Prince Philip.Credit:AP
As the Duke’s coffin lowered into the vault at St George’s chapel, those present bowed their heads.
They were spread out across the pews, two metres apart.
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