A photograph of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and more than a dozen people drinking wine in the garden of his Downing Street residence during a lockdown last year has fuelled further concerns that officials may have failed to respect social distancing measures.
The picture, published by the Guardian newspaper on Sunday, shows Johnson with his wife Carrie, who appears to be holding their newborn son, and two other people at a table on a terrace in the Downing Street garden with cheese and wine.
Nearby is another table of four other people, and a short distance away are a larger group standing on the grass around a table with bottles of wine.
The scenes depicted in the photograph add to the scrutiny on Johnson following revelations that his staff held a series of gatherings during COVID-19 lockdowns while the population was being told not to mix with others.
He has faced a barrage of criticism since a video emerged showing his staff laughing and joking about a Downing Street party during a 2020 Christmas lockdown when such festivities were banned.
Johnson’s deputy attempted to quell rising public anger on Monday, saying the latest image released by the Guardian does not show a party.
“Downing Street use that garden as a place of work,” Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told Times Radio. “That’s not against the regulations.”
“I genuinely don’t think it gets classified as a party,” Raab said. “I don’t think it was a party.”
Raab said the new photograph was taken on a day when the government had just held a news conference and that sometimes staff had a drink after a long day in the garden.
It was a work gathering, he said.
Johnson’s wife Carrie, Raab said, had popped down from the Downing Street flat to spend some time with her husband.
Besides anger over alleged parties, Johnson is grappling with a rebellion within his party over the direction of his government which critics say is chaotic and has dramatically expanded the power of the state.
Brexit Minister David Frost resigned on Saturday over disillusionment with the direction of the government.
“You know my concerns about the current direction of travel,” Frost told Johnson in a resignation letter released by Downing Street.
“I hope we will move as fast as possible to where we need to get to: a lightly regulated, low tax, entrepreneurial economy, at the cutting edge of modern science and economic change.”
Frost on Monday clarified that his resignation was not about Johnson’s leadership, and was instead a question of being unable to support some government policies.
“This is absolutely not about leadership. This is about policy differences,” Frost told reporters outside his home. “I left the government because, as I think is well known, I couldn’t support certain policies – most recently on the COVID restrictions.”
While the UK rolled out a successful vaccination campaign to stem infections, the country has suffered some of the world’s worst death rates and is currently grappling with record-high case numbers – driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant.
To date, at least 11.4 million people have had the virus, according to government figures, while at least 147,200 people have died within 28 days of testing positive.
At least 12 people in Britain have died with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, Raab said on Monday, as he refused to rule out a tightening of social restrictions before Christmas.