Covid perm sec signed off on taskforce head's leaving do, Gray finds

James Bowler, now DIT perm sec, said Kate Josephs' send-off could happen as long as it was socially distanced
James Bowler at Public Accounts Committee in January. Photo:

James Bowler, then the official responsible for overseeing the government’s coronavirus response, signed off on a leaving do for the director general of the Covid Task Force in 2020 while coronavirus restrictions were in place, it has emerged.

Bowler, who was hired as second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office leading the taskforce in October 2020, said an event could take place to mark the departure of Kate Josephs and an unnamed official, providing certain conditions were met.

The official – who has since been appointed permanent secretary at the Department of International Trade – said the leaving party could happen as long as it was time limited and socially distanced.

He also said no one must travel into the office specifically to attend the event.

Tier 3 rules in effect in London at the time banned indoor mixing of people from different households.

But Sue Gray’s report on Partygate events makes clear that Bowler’s instructions were not followed. While a one-way system was put in place, social distancing did not take place as “those in the room gathered in small groups, and there was also mingling between groups”.

Between 20 and 30 officials from the Cabinet Office and No.10, including SCS, attended the event – including Simon Ridley,another taskforce DG.

“There was food and drink available, including crisps, beer and prosecco that had been purchased by individuals attending. Background music was played through a smartphone. Some people left after the speeches,” the report said.

Bowler gave a leaving speech to thank Josephs and the departing No.10 official, returning to his office to work shortly afterwards. He left the building at quarter to nine, according to the report.

Despite being scheduled to finish at 8.30pm, the event did not “wind down” until after 10pm, Gray said. Between six and eight people remained after 10.30pm, including Ridley and Josephs. Someone ordered six pizzas for the group shortly after that.

Josephs was put on paid special leave from her current job as chief executive of Sheffield Council after reports of the event became public.

She apologised for the event in January, and said in a tweet today that she wanted to reiterate her "sincere and unequivocal" apology.

Most of the Covid Taskforce were working from home in 2020, with “some key staff” at the Cabinet Office’s 70 Whitehall headquarters. These were mostly senior civil servants and there were around 12 members of the team in the office on a typical day, according to Gray’s report.

An invitation was sent to 40 staff on 16 December 2020 inviting them to an event the following day.

“Given higher Covid restrictions please do not travel into London for this if you wouldn't otherwise have been in the office,” the invitation for the event, which was to take place between 6.30 and 8.30pm, read.

“We'd love it if you could join us for a farewell, Covid secure, drink,” it added.

James Bowler was not questioned by the Met Police or fined as part of its criminal investigation into Partygate.

Responding on behalf of James Bowler, a DIT spokesperson declined to comment.

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