Was the law broken at the Downing Street Christmas party last year? A video has now been leaked showing a No. 10 advisor joking about the festivities. Yet this incident, which is currently dominating the news, almost certainly did not break the law – which is why the story is so perplexing.
During the course of the pandemic, the Covid laws have changed regularly. Yet one thing has stayed largely consistent: the rules have always treated people and places differently. Despite what some might claim, there's nothing sinister in this. And it's for this reason that the 'cheese and wine' gathering – which the PM has said did not take place – probably isn't a matter for the police.
The starting point in the Covid rules should be section 73 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. This part of the Act states that the Covid regulations, at all times, never applied to Crown Land (which includes No. 10). This only changed if No. 10 made a written agreement to be voluntarily bound – and no one thinks they did. So the regulations almost certainly never applied to No. 10 anyway.
Why would this be? The reason is simple: in the 1980s, lawmakers decided that it would be better to allow the government to function during any future national pandemic without having to worry about being caught up in quarantine regulations. The thinking was that by making the government effectively exempt in law, the government could continue to function.
In addition to the 1984 Act, there were also specific regulations that applied at the time of the alleged party: the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020. According to these rules, gatherings were allowed in all public buildings, or parts of them ‘operated by a business, a charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institution or a public body.’ There had to be a risk assessment but a gathering was legal for whole swathes of people.
So it seems likely that whatever happened in Downing Street was legal. Of course, this won't placate Boris Johnson's critics – nor will it do much to dent the attacks on the PM. But these people can rest assured that the law was not broken.
In our legal system, people are innocent until proven guilty. People do not get to just say that crimes occurred and then demand that someone prove themselves innocent. Criminal lawyers will grandiosely call this ‘the golden thread’ that runs through their area of law. It applies to people they don’t like as much as those they do. And it should apply in this case.
Far worse than this though is that another greater wrong has occurred. The public have been mistakenly told that some people are above the law. No one is above the law. That is what the rule of law means. If public confidence in that is undermined then that is a very serious issue. People need to stop playing politics with the law.