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DfE lockdown party may have gone on past 1am

Gavin Williamson’s much-criticised Covid lockdown Christmas party at the Department for Education’s headquarters could have gone on until past 1am, “deeply concerning” new documents suggest.

An official inquiry into Covid get-togethers within the government said the “festive drinks” on December 10, 2020, lasted for about an hour until 6pm. Then-education secretary Williamson provided wine and mince pies for as many as 30 attendees.

The report concluded that Williamson left “shortly afterwards to travel back to his constituency”.

London was in tier 2 lockdown at the time. Gatherings of two or more people indoors were banned unless of an exception such as a gathering being “reasonably necessary for work purposes”.

Schools Week asked the Cabinet Office for data on the number of times staff swiped out of the department’s security barriers that night, and the seven previous nights.

It showed that staff swiped out of Sanctuary Buildings 34 times after 10pm on the night of the party. Eight of those were after 1am.

The next highest was nine swipes on Thursday 9, and then five on Thursday 3. Four of the days had zero swipes in that time period.

‘Deeply concerning’

Susan Acland Hood

A Liberal Democrats spokesperson said the findings were “deeply concerning and urgent clarification is needed on the extent of this party, which took place while teachers, parents and children were still suffering from constant disruption and uncertainty”.

The DfE said this week the gathering lasted an hour before “individuals dispersed and/or left the building”.

Susan Acland-Hood, the DfE permanent secretary, had told MPs in 2021 that about “two dozen” people attended.

But the DfE said swipes do not record individuals leaving. Staff can leave for food or a cigarette, for instance, and then return. They would also include 24-hour cleaning and security staff.

Late access to the building was commonplace during Covid too, the department said.

Asked whether the 2022 inquiry into lockdown parties led by Sue Gray was aware of this data, the DfE said the team had access to records deemed relevant and were able to speak to members of staff.

Gathering ‘should never have happened’

The Metropolitan Police did not investigate the party. The DfE repeated that the gathering to “thank staff for their efforts … should never have happened”.

Williamson is one of the few big-name Conservative MPs standing at the general election and set to keep their seat. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The government originally refused to release the swipe card data, arguing that it would be a risk to national security and could “enable a hostile actor to determine patterns of movement by staff in and out of the building”.

But the Information Commissioner’s Office backed our appeal. They said the likelihood of anyone being able to determine patterns of movement today are “so remote as to be irrelevant”.

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