Downing Street has apologised to Buckingham Palace for two staff parties held the night before Queen Elizabeth was pictured sitting alone during the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip.
The leaving parties were held in Downing Street on April 16 last year, while coronavirus restrictions were in place in England.
The latest revelation has reignited scrutiny of the party culture inside Downing Street during the pandemic and intensified questions over the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Earlier this week Johnson was forced to apologise after admitting he attended a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden in May 2020. The admission has led to calls for him to resign from the leader of the Scottish Tories and a handful of MPs in his own party.
The prime minister’s spokesman said on Friday: “It is deeply regrettable that this took place at a time of national mourning and No 10 has apologised to the Palace.”
“You heard from the PM this week, he’s recognised No 10 should be held to the highest standards, and take responsibility for things we did not get right.”
James Slack, former director of communications for the prime minister, apologised on Friday morning for one of the two events, held to celebrate his departure from Downing Street.
Slack, a former political journalist who is now deputy editor of The Sun, told the Press Association that he wanted to “apologise unreservedly for the anger and hurt caused” and said the event “should not have happened at the time that it did”.
The next morning the Queen sat alone during the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, which was attended by just 30 family members in order to adhere to coronavirus restrictions.
Members of the congregation wore masks and were socially distanced. The public were also encouraged not to pay their respects in person but to follow coverage of the funeral on television or radio.
Government guidance at the time stated: “You must not socialise indoors except with your household or support bubble. You can meet outdoors, including in gardens, in groups of six people or two households.”
The Daily Telegraph quoted eyewitnesses who said about 30 people took part in the two Downing Street leaving parties which then combined into one, with staff dancing into the early hours of the morning in a basement under Number 10.
One witness claims a reveller was sent to the Co-op supermarket on the Strand with a suitcase to be filled with bottles of wine and returned to Downing Street.
One party was held for Slack and the other for a photographer; the newspaper said the prime minister was not present.
Damian Hinds, security minister, said he was “shocked” by the revelations given the parties took place at a “particularly sombre time” in the history of the country. “Like everybody who’s read this story this morning, I was shocked to read it,” he told Sky News.
Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader, said on Twitter: “The Queen sat alone in mourning like so many did at the time with personal trauma & sacrifice to keep to the rules in the national interest. I have no words for the culture & behaviours at Number 10 and the buck stops with the PM.”
Andrew Bridgen became the latest Conservative MP on Thursday to call for Johnson’s resignation. He said he had submitted a letter to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, demanding a vote of no confidence in Johnson. Fifty-four such letters would trigger a vote.
Cabinet ministers have called for patience while Sue Gray, a senior civil servant investigating a series of gatherings across Whitehall that allegedly broke coronavirus restrictions, completes her report.
“The Queen sitting alone, mourning the loss of her husband, was the defining image of lockdown,” Sir Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat leader, said on Twitter. “Not because she is the Queen, but because she was just another person, mourning alone like too many others. Whilst she mourned, Number 10 partied. Johnson must go.”