A tale of two parties: Covid-19 and the perils of the season

Downing St is suffering a backlash and some bosses are ready to axe the Christmas office party

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A tale of two parties. Before one, on Monday night this week, we guests were given what seemed to be strict instructions. Face masks would be worn when not drinking or eating, social distancing would be observed, sanitiser would be supplied.

In the event, people turned up wearing masks and promptly ditched them, never to be seen again all evening. Forget social distancing, everyone was in their customary party huddles. As for the sanitiser, bottles of the stuff sat unused.

That was a big bash, about 200 people in a hotel in London’s West End.

Before another, also on Monday, I was told that everyone attending had to take a lateral flow test. One person, admittedly a lawyer, in the afternoon posted a picture of their test result.

Cue all the others attending following suit. My inbox kept pinging with the arrival of yet another photo of someone’s lateral flow test.

Admittedly, it was a smaller affair, 30 or so. But even so, do I really wish to see pictures of lateral flow tests? Can’t they be trusted to hold them and then stay away if positive? Welcome to the craziness of the London party season, 2021.

The ghost of Christmas parties past has engulfed Boris Johnson's Downing St in recent days. A gathering last year when the country was under lockdown restrictions with all restaurants closed and parties banned is the focus of fierce headlines and a public backlash.

With Omicron virus infections soaring, the fate of this year's events is now very much in doubt. Several invitations I’ve received have been pulled.

One that is still happening, next week, is for a firm of City lawyers, but those invited are receiving regular messages saying: “We completely understand if you’re no longer coming."

It’s as if they wish the festivities were cancelled but feel obliged to hold them because they said they would and they’re macho solicitors who do not want to appear weak in the eyes of staff, clients and contacts.

In truth, judging by the speed with which others scrapped theirs – Omicron had barely been disclosed before the emails landed expressing regrets and seeking my understanding but they put the safety of their community first – many organisations were relieved to pull the plug.

To party or not

Every employer of any size in the UK is expected to hold some form of Christmas celebration. Usually they will put something on for the staff – drinks or a full-on party with dinner and dancing or a lunch or dinner –and the same again, but smarter, for clients.

Or some smaller firms, will combine the two and hold a joint employees and clients party.

This extends right across the spectrum, from private to public sector, from the grandest corporations to charities. Last year was easy. Thanks to lockdown all parties were effectively outlawed.

Controversy rages, though, as to whether 10 Downing Street pressed on regardless and held a party in contravention of the rules. On 18 December 2020, it’s claimed there was a Christmas party at 10 Downing Street that several dozen people attended.

There was food and drink and, according to one source, “party games were played”. It was fun, but illegal because the Covid rules at the time stated: “No person may participate in a gathering in the Tier 3 area” – like London – “which consists of 2 or more people and takes place in a private dwelling or any indoor space.”

For the avoidance of doubt there was specific government guidance for Christmas period: “You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party where that is a primarily social activity."

Some ministers deny there was a party, while others say that if there was one, it didn’t break any rules.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister declares: “There was not a party.” But Vaccines Minister Maggie Throup says she’s been “reassured all guidance was carefully followed”.

Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary, says if there was a “formal party” that would have been a problem, but there wasn’t one, so no problem.

The rules, however, did not distinguish between formal and informal parties. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, when asked about a party, avoids a direct answer: “No rules were broken and there you go.”

That, don’t forget, was when there was meant to be clear right and wrong.

Confusion reigns

This year, even greater confusion reigns. Scientists warn that any such grouping indoors will run the risk of spreading the virus.

They say that while indications are encouraging, Omicron may not be as dangerous as the Delta variety, resulting in fewer hospital admissions and deaths. It’s too soon to be sure.

They believe it’s more transmissible and as we have a proportion of the adult population unvaxxed there is the potential to bring the health system to its knees, to cause high absenteeism, to damage the economy and close schools and universities.

Against them are those politicians and some sections of the media who argue that for the sake of the nation’s mental and economic well-being, people must be allowed to let their hair down, that we must return to a semblance of normality.

Writing off a second Christmas would be catastrophic, destroying the High street and hospitality industry at their busiest periods, and sending a signal that, despite the vaccine, Covid is winning, sending us into next year in a state of depression and continued anxiety.

Blind optimism of Boris Johnson

In Johnson, of course, we have a prime minister who tries to avoid downbeat at all costs. He is determined to ignore the boffins or at least resist the evidence for as long as he possibly can. If he is able to keep Christmas going, he will.

What he has created is uncertainty. Messages are mixed. Should parties go ahead or be abandoned? If they do happen, what are the guidelines? Is it realistic, given that consumption of alcohol is likely to be involved, to expect the protocol to be obeyed?

The result is chaos. Take this, from Raab: “The rule is very clear. People can go on and have Christmas parties. Of course, employers will want to use common sense about how they do that. We don't want to substitute for that discretion and that common sense.”

Then, he added: “We won't be having a Ministry of Justice-wide Christmas party this year. But we will be having, I think, appropriate drinks at a smaller scale.”

What does that mean, “appropriate drinks at a smaller scale”? Is it one glass or two, a nip of sherry and that’s your lot, or is it a lot of drinks but with not so many people?

You decide which is he is saying. But if you take your lead from his unenticing description, you might as well not bother.

That’s Labour’s line. No parties at all. Full stop. Typical killjoys, say the Tories.

But then there is this, from Raab’s cabinet colleague Therese Coffey, that people should avoid kissing under the mistletoe this year.

The Health Secretary (health, note) Sajid Javid says that’s wrong, they can kiss whoever they like. Meanwhile, the scientific experts advise that people should not be together at all under a sprig of mistletoe, let alone debating whether they can kiss.

For some bosses, the confusion is welcome. For the more image-conscious the annual party is a nightmare. We live in an age of growing inequality, of woke and heightened sensibility to those less fortunate. They do not want to be outed on social media, in the mainstream media, for their extravagance.

Yet, they cannot hold a pared-down version – staff and clients would suspect something was wrong. They won’t admit it publicly and will not say so to their employees, but they’ve told me they’re quite glad to find an excuse to postpone. For once, they’ve got reason to be grateful to Covid.

Published: December 08, 2021, 8:06 AM
BUSINESS