More than 50 UK government staff will be questioned about their participation in alleged lockdown-breaching parties in 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, the Metropolitan Police said on Wednesday.
It’s believed Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be one of the individuals questioned as he was allegedly present at six of the gatherings, one of which was at his own flat at 11 Downing Street.
The police investigation, dubbed “Operation Hillman,” was initially investigating 12 gatherings in the heart of the UK government that allegedly broke CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus regulations, but the Met have said they will be widening their inquiries to cover a quiz night in Number 10—the prime minister’s office—in December 2020 after a photograph emerged of Johnson’s wife and colleagues near an open bottle of sparkling wine.
The Met said officers will begin sending formal questionnaires, mostly by email, to more than 50 people by the end of the week regarding alleged gatherings on eight dates.
It also said detectives are continuing to examine more than 500 documents and 300 images provided to them by the Cabinet Office and may make further contact if they identify more participants in the events.
People who receive the questionnaires, which have formal legal status and must be answered truthfully, will be asked to provide an account and explanation of their participation in an event.
If the police find an individual has breached the CCP virus regulations without a reasonable excuse, a fixed penalty notice would normally be issued.
The Met said it understands “the interest in and impact of this case, and are progressing the investigation at pace.”
“We are committed to completing our investigations proportionately, fairly, and impartially,” it said.
Fixed penalty notices for breaking CCP virus rules are typically £200 ($271) for the first offence (half if paid within 14 days), double for every new offence, and capped at £6,400 (£8,686).
The police also have the power to issue a fine of £10,000 ($13,571) to those who organise or facilitate “unlawful gatherings” of over 30 people.
Adam Wagner, a human rights lawyer and an expert on CCP virus rules, said Johnson could be fined more than £10,000.
“If he was given a fixed penalty notice for each and every one [of] those [six alleged gatherings], I think that he would be given those sort of cumulative amounts until eventually the final one would be £6,400,” he told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme.
“So overall, and assuming there isn’t a big £10,000 one for hosting a gathering in the flat of over 30 people, he could still be in line for over £10,000 worth of fixed penalty notices if they accumulate.”
Wagner also said he believes the dispatching of questionnaires is “very significant” because it means the police think they are approaching a point where they can start issuing fines.
“It sounds to me, although I haven’t seen the letters, that they’ve decided that relevant gatherings were potentially a breach of the regulations and now they’re asking people, ‘Did you have some sort of reasonable excuse?’ which, in law, would effectively be a defence for being there.”
Asked if he will resign as the prime minister if fined, Johnson, at a press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, told reporters that he’ll say more when the process is completed.
Meanwhile, it emerged that the Met is considering whether to investigate the funding of the lavish refurbishment of Johnson’s official Downing Street flat following a complaint by lawyers acting for the Labour Party.
In a letter to Scotland Yard, solicitors said there was a “reasonable suspicion” that Johnson had broken anti-bribery laws which the force was “duty-bound” to investigate.
The Met confirmed they had received the letter on Feb. 4 and officers from its Central Specialist Crime Command are considering it.
The complaint follows the release last month of an exchange of WhatsApp messages between the prime minister and Tory donor Lord Brownlow.
They show that Johnson discussed a proposal supported by the peer for a Great Exhibition 2.0 at the same time as requesting his help with the £112,000 ($152,000) revamp of his official residence.
Ministerial records show that two months later, Brownlow, who is a trustee of Royal Albert Hall Trust, attended a meeting with the then-culture secretary Oliver Dowden to discuss the exhibition plan.
In his letter, seen by The Guardian, Gerald Shamash, of the law firm Edwards Duthie Shamash, said that despite inquiries by the Electoral Commission and Johnson’s adviser on ministerial interests, Lord Geidt, there were still matters that were “uninvestigated and unconsidered.”
In response to the claims in the letter, a Number 10 spokesman said, “These allegations are categorically untrue and a clear misrepresentation of the facts.”
PA Media contributed to this report.