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Exclusive: Home Office staff ‘mingled and drank prosecco’ during lockdown

Staff in Priti Patel’s department had drinks and snacks to celebrate a Home Office policy leading the six o’clock news in March 2021.

Home Office staff “mingled” and drank prosecco in their office during lockdown last year, The Big Issue has learned.

The gathering has been described as around a dozen of the department’s press and events team “mingling” while enjoying “prosecco at desks” to celebrate a Home Office immigration policy leading the six o’clock news.

The drinks, confirmed by a Home Office spokesperson, were held on March 24 2021 – just days after a man in Warwickshire was fined £100 for sitting in his garden with three friends.

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There is no suggestion home secretary Priti Patel – who previously said she would call the police if she saw people breaking lockdown rules – was present or aware of the drinks.

At the time, the country was yet to come out of the January 2021 lockdown, and indoor mixing between households was still banned. Recreation in outdoor spaces was limited to two people. Outdoor gatherings of six people, or two households, were only permitted a week later.

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A source described the drinks as “four bottles of prosecco” with crisps, saying people were “nominally at desks”. When asked to describe the level of mixing they added: “Mingling is a fair description – water cooler stuff”.

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Around a dozen staff members had gathered to celebrate Priti Patel’s announcement on an overhaul of asylum seeker rules leading the BBC News at Six.

The “New Plan for Immigration” reforms included a measure to make asylum seekers who arrive through “illegal” routes liable for removal even if they are granted asylum, and were criticised by Labour as being defined by “a lack of compassion and a lack of competence”.

Rules at the time in the department were that staff must work four desks apart. The gathering took place some floors below the home secretary’s office.

When contacted by The Big Issue, the Home Office did not deny these details. A spokesperson said staff came in to launch the policy, “in line with guidance”, and drank while watching the coverage before “returning to work or going home.”

In September 2020, Patel told Sky News she would call the police if she saw her neighbours breaking coronavirus restrictions.

“I’m rarely at home but if I saw something that I thought was inappropriate then, quite frankly, I would call the police,” she said.

“It’s not dobbing in neighbours, it’s all about us taking personal responsibility.”

In January last year, the Home Office shared a video of a driver being fined by police, with the tag line: You can’t be chillin’.

In the video, a man tells an officer: “Just come from work sir, just been chilling.” The officer replies: “Yeah, you can’t be chillin'”.

The officer then adds: “You can leave home to go to work, you finish work, you go straight home. OK, you can’t hang out with your mates… we’re in lockdown.”

The restrictions at the time were the same as when the work drinks took place inside the Home Office.

The drinks were described to The Big Issue as a “minor” gathering not on the scale of other Downing Street parties reported in recent weeks. The revelations come after Tory MPs called for Labour leader Keir Starmer to apologise over images of him drinking a beer in an office on April 30 2021 – by which point step two of lockdown easing was in place, with pub gardens and gyms open.

Tory MP Michael Fabricant said: “If the prime minister can apologise for a secure Downing Street garden event where nobody could have joined in from outside, it is a bit graceless of Keir Starmer not to profusely apologise for an event in an office that was not guarded and could have been a real Covid spreader.”

Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray MP told The Big Issue: “Every day that goes by more revelations come out showing the culture of one rule for them, another rule for everybody else, at the heart of government. 

“The Prime Minister and his government have lost all moral authority to lead, and he should resign.

“Labour want to do more than just oppose the Tories though – we can replace them altogether and that’s exactly what we plan to do.”

A Home Office spokesperson told The Big Issue: “In line with the guidance at the time, some members of staff came into the office to launch a major immigration policy.

“A small number had a drink whilst watching the broadcast coverage of their work on 6pm news bulletins before returning to work or going home.”

It can be hard to keep on top of all of the revelations, what with there being so many, so here’s a list of them – or the ones we know about anyway.

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