DfE to be investigated over Covid Christmas party

Gavin Williamson 'instigated' the gathering, top DfE official tells MPs
8th December 2021, 2:24pm
Catherine Lough

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DfE to be investigated over Covid Christmas party

https://www.tes.com/magazine/news/general/dfe-be-investigated-over-covid-christmas-party
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picture: SAH

The Department for Education is to be investigated over a party held last year during coronavirus restrictions and "instigated" by former education secretary Gavin Williamson. 

Giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee this afternoon, DfE permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood was asked about reports that a party took place at the DfE last year on 10 December 2020, when tier 2 restrictions in the capital prohibited indoor socialising.

Ms Acland-Hood said the party had been a "gathering of colleagues" and that "they were already present at the office and had worked together throughout the pandemic".

"The gathering was used to thank those staff for their efforts during the pandemic," she said, adding that "drinks and snacks" were brought along.

She said no outdoor guests were present and that it was a work-related event, but she added, "it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time".

Mr Holden said work could not be used as an excuse for socialising at the time and asked if the DfE accepted that rules were broken.

Ms Acland-Hood repeated that the DfE acknowledges it would have been "better" not to have held the event and confirmed she was in attendance. 

She said it was, "to some extent", an organised event "in the sense that the secretary of state said he wanted to thank staff together for the work they had done".

Mr Holden asked if Gavin Williamson, then secretary of state, had therefore organised the party rather than going along to say a few words

"You're saying it was instigated by the secretary of state?" Mr Holden asked.

"Yes," said Ms Acland-Hood.

She said the party was held in the canteen. Mr Holden referred to prime minister Boris Johnson's statement today that any staff found to have broken the rules would face disciplinary action in Downing Street and whether this was the case for the DfE.

Ms Acland-Hood confirmed that it was and that she had spoken to the cabinet secretary and the DfE gathering would be part of his investigation.

Ms Acland-Hood said the seniority of staff in attendance were a "mixture of grades", but mostly private officers.

Asked whose idea it was to gather everyone in the canteen "with a glass of wine", Ms Acland-Hood said she did not know and that initially the idea had been "that people might gather in their offices where they were".

She added: "The move to the canteen was partly actually made in order to enable social distancing, in order to make sure people could stay apart while he spoke to them".

She said about "two dozen" people were attending and that if rules were broken she would also face disciplinary action for attending. 

Mr Holden asked why, if Mr Williamson wanted to thank people, did he not go to them in their offices rather than gathering "with drinks and canapes".

Ms Acland-Hood repeated that the DfE accepted it was "better" not to have gathered in that way. 

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