The Treasury has been forced to defend officials holding an “impromptu” drinks party to celebrate Rishi Sunak’s autumn spending review during lockdown.
A spokesperson insisted it was a “small number” of staff who celebrated around their desks, despite reports putting the number closer to two dozen civil servants at the event.
A team of officials working on the chancellor’s spending review announcement stayed after hours for the party on 25 November 2020, the Times reported.
Government sources said the drinks were not planned but the civil servants involved bought beer and wine from a nearby supermarket.
A Treasury spokesperson told the Guardian: “A number of HMT staff came into the office to work on the spending review 2020. We have been made aware that a small number of staff had impromptu drinks around their desks after the event.
“The Treasury did not organise an in-person departmental party last Christmas.”
It is understood that Sunak was not at the event and was not aware of it taking place at the time.
During the November lockdown non-essential shops, leisure and entertainment venues were closed as well as pubs, bars and restaurants. People were told to stay at home except for limited reasons including work if it could not be done from home.
The latest controversy comes as Downing Street and the prime minister, Boris Johnson, face criticism over allegations of Covid rule-breaking parties held in the run-up to last Christmas.
The prime minister’s now director of communications, Jack Doyle, is reported to have addressed staff and handed out awards at a No 10 Christmas party last year that is currently under investigation.
Doyle, who was then deputy director of communications at Downing Street, is believed to have addressed up to 50 people and presented awards to the press office at the gathering on 18 December 2020.
The prime minister has announced that an internal investigation led by the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, will look into reports of the event. The investigation was later widened to include another festive celebration and a reported staff leaving do. Downing Street said it had cancelled plans to hold a Christmas party this year.
Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings tweeted on Friday that there were “lots” of photos of parties in No 10 that would “inevitably get out”.
Reports of government officials allegedly breaking lockdown restrictions while the rest of the country could not see friends and family last Christmas has seen Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour move ahead in opinion polls.
Meanwhile, two police officers have been disciplined for attending a party and breaking Covid rules. Police were called to the gathering at a house in Hove, East Sussex, at 8.46pm on 15 May where they found several off-duty colleagues.
At the time, coronavirus regulations stated people should mix only with their own household or linked households. Ten officers were issued with fixed penalty notices of £200 each for breaching rules.
A police spokesperson said an internal investigation resulted in one of the police officers being handed a written warning, while an acting police sergeant was given “reflective practice”, which requires officers to reflect on their actions.
D S Rachel Carr added: “We have taken Covid-related breaches very seriously and we do not tolerate this kind of behaviour which falls below the standards we expect of our officers and staff.”