The reputation of the civil service is being compromised by constant revelations about restriction-busting events held during pandemic lockdowns, the general secretary of senior officials’ union the FDA has said.
Dave Penman said ongoing claims and qualified defences about gatherings in Downing Street in 2020 and last year were effectively a “bitter divorce” battle between prime minister Boris Johnson and former chief special adviser Dominic Cummings.
“The government and the civil service are the kids caught in the crossfire,” he said. “There’s no doubt that it’s damaging to the reputation of the prime minister but I think also, increasingly, it’s damaging the reputation of the civil service in government and we need to conclude this affair one way or the other as quickly as possible.”
Penman’s comments came in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme after Cummings’s latest claims that Johnson was fully aware about a 20 May 2020 drinks gathering at Downing Street, for which invites were allegedly sent to 100 potential guests.
Last week Johnson acknowledged in parliament that he had attended the event, but suggested he had no advance knowledge of it and then questioned whether it was actually a party.
On Twitter last night, Cummings said Johnson had been consulted about the party before it took place and advised by “at least two people” that invites should be cancelled. He said the PM rejected the advice and agreed the event could proceed.
“The events of May 20 alone, never mind the string of other events, mean the PM lied to parliament about parties,” Cummings wrote.
“Not only me but other eyewitnesses who discussed this at the time would swear under oath this is what happened.”
A No.10 spokesperson said it was “untrue” that the prime minister had been warned about the event in advance.
“He believed implicitly that this was a work event,” the spokesperson said. “He has apologised to the House and is committed to making a further statement once the investigation concludes.”
Cabinet Office second permanent secretary Sue Gray is currently investigating clams about multiple gatherings in Downing Street and other parts of Whitehall said to have taken place in contravention of pandemic restrictions. She is expected to report to No.10 later this month.
The latest revelations about restriction-busting events concern a “prosecco and crisps” get together at the Home Office, in March last year – allegedly marking successful media coverage for a new immigration policy – reported by the Mirror and the Big Issue.
A Home Office spokesperson told the Mirror the drinks were “in line with guidance at the time”.
On Friday the former director general responsible for the Cabinet Office’s Covid Taskforce apologised for holding leaving drinks with colleagues in December 2020, while coronavirus restrictions were in place.
Kate Josephs, who is now chief executive of Sheffield City Council, said she was “truly sorry” for the gathering and was cooperating with the Cabinet Office probe into parties. She said she was making the statement because her current job involved supporting Sheffield’s Covid response.
PM must not hang officials out to dry
Asked on Today whether some officials could lose their jobs in the fallout from Sue Gray’s report, FDA chief Penman said leadership “comes from the top”.
“What officials will want and expect is that if there is blame coming out of this then that is proportionate to those in leadership positions,” he said.
“If the prime minister thinks he can get out of it by avoiding scrutiny under the ministerial code and using terms like ‘implicitly’ and is avoiding that sort of scrutiny because ultimately only he can sanction an investigation under the ministerial code, but others are then facing discipline or sack, that won’t feel like it’s a fair outcome or proportionate to where blame lies.”