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On eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, Downing Street held lockdown parties

News emerged on Jan. 14 that on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, Boris Johnson’s staff partied at Downing Street, flouting a ban on indoor gatherings. (Video: Reuters)
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LONDON — One of the defining images of Prince Philip’s funeral was that of Queen Elizabeth II sitting alone in a pew wearing a black dress and a black mask, abiding by the strict coronavirus restrictions at the time.

Now, new revelations indicate that on the eve of the funeral, the scene was very different over at the prime minister’s Downing Street offices and residence, where staffers held two parties.

On Friday, Downing Street apologized to Buckingham Palace for the “deeply regrettable” events.

Image of Queen Elizabeth II sitting alone at Philip’s funeral breaks hearts around the world

“It was deeply regrettable that this took place at a time of national mourning,” said a spokesman for the prime minister’s office. The spokesman confirmed that an apology was extended to the palace but did not say how it was communicated.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration has been hit by claims that parties at Downing Street and other government offices flouted the coronavirus rules at the time. There has been widespread outrage over the idea that officials have not been bound by the onerous pandemic restrictions that they devised.

Britain's opposition party is calling for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to resign after missteps and controversies during the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: Reuters)

The incident that forced an apology from the prime minister occurred April 16, 2021, the night before the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh, the queen’s husband. At the time, the country was in a period of national mourning for Philip, 99, and indoor social mixing was banned because of coronavirus restrictions.

The night before the funeral, there were two gatherings in Downing Street that merged into a group of about 30 people, according to reports in the Daily Telegraph. The event included drinking and dancing, and at one point, someone was sent to a grocery store with a suitcase to buy bottles of wine, the paper said. It stretched on until the early hours.

Johnson is not thought to have attended this time.

James Slack, Johnson’s former communications chief, who was the guest of honor at one of the parties, apologized “unreservedly” for the “anger and hurt caused.” He said that “this event should not have happened at the time that it did. I am deeply sorry, and take full responsibility.”

According to media reports, the April 16 parties were send-offs, including for Slack, who left Downing Street to become deputy editor in chief at the Sun newspaper.

It can be hard trying to keep track of all the parties alleged to have broken lockdown rules, but newspapers here have been creating extensive graphics, although they seemingly need constant updating. The Times of London’s current tally is 16. Updates were needed again Friday afternoon following the revelation of a send-off party during Christmastime 2020 for Kate Josephs, who was then the head of the government’s covid-19 task force.

The continual drip of “partygate” reports has rocked the British government and renewed speculation about Johnson’s premiership. Johnson’s popularity has dropped to an all-time low, according to a recent YouGov poll.

Earlier this week, Johnson was forced to apologize for attending a “bring your own booze” garden party at his home in May 2020, during the height of the first national lockdown.

Johnson said that he thought the gathering was a “work event” and that he went to say thanks to his staff for their work during the pandemic. While he didn’t admit to any personal wrongdoing, he said he understood the “rage” the public feels. “With hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside,” he said.

So far, five lawmakers in Johnson’s Conservative Party have publicly acknowledged submitting letters of no confidence in the prime minister. Letters from at least 54 Conservative members of Parliament are required to trigger a leadership change.

Sue Gray, a career civil servant, is leading an investigation into a number of alleged Downing Street gatherings during lockdown and whether rules were breached. Her report is expected by the end of the month.

She took over the probe when Simon Case, another civil servant, stepped aside after reports that a party was held in his office during coronavirus restrictions.