The former head of the Covid Taskforce has said the Cabinet Office stopped her from speaking out sooner about her rule-breaking leaving do in Whitehall.
Kate Josephs has been allowed to return to her job as chief executive at Sheffield City Council after a cross-party committee decided on Wednesday that she had felt “genuine remorse” about attending the event.
Josephs, who apologised on January 14 this year for attending the December 2020 gathering, said on Wednesday afternoon she wishes she had spoken out earlier about her “mistake”.
“People have asked why I did not speak about this until January,” she said.
“Because the event itself happened in my former role, I went to my former employer for guidance. I was asked to respect the confidentiality of the Cabinet Office’s independent investigation. I wish I had challenged that more strongly and spoken to colleagues in Sheffield; I have accepted a written warning from the [council] committee in respect of this error of judgement.”
The Cabinet Office began its Partygate investigation in December into 16 gatherings during 2020 and 2021 when Covid restrictions were in place. A Met Police investigation followed, ending with 83 people receiving fixed penalty notices.
Cabinet secretary Simon Case was initially tasked with the government inquiry but second permanent secretary Sue Gray took over later that month due to media reports at the time that Case may have attended an illegal gathering; the cab sec was not fined over any Partygate event.
Josephs was fined by the police for attending the leaving drinks to mark her departure as director general of the Covid Taskforce, which took place on 17 December 2020 at Cabinet Office HQ.
She was placed on special paid leave from her chief exec job at Sheffield City Council in January this year while the council's own independent investigation took place. She has now returned to work.
The Sheffield City Council committee, which ruled on Josephs’ Covid rule-breaking conduct following the council’s independent investigation, said it had considered its decision over whether to let her return to her job “very carefully”.
In her statement following the decision, Josephs said she was “deeply sorry” for her mistakes and intends to learn from them and “continue to work hard to be the very best chief executive I can for our city”.
Gray’s Partygate report revealed that James Bowler, who was then the official responsible for overseeing the government’s Covid-19 response, signed off on Joseph’s leaving drinks.
Bowler, who second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office leading the Covid Taskforce, said an event could take place to mark the departure of Josephs and an unnamed official as long as certain conditions were met, including social distancing.
But Sue Gray’s report on Partygate events showed his instructions were not followed, with social distancing not taking place as “those in the room gathered in small groups, and there was also mingling between groups”.
Around 20-30 officials from the Cabinet Office and No.10, including senior officials, attended the event, where there was food and alcohol and background music played on a smartphone. Bowler gave a leaving speech, before returning to his office. He left the building at quarter to nine, according to the report.
The event went on until after 10.30pm, with between six and eight people remained after 10.30pm, including Josephs.
Bowler was not questioned by the Met Police or fined as part of its Partygate investigation.