Tory MP attended lockdown barbecue with journalists

Simon Murphy and Peter Walker

The Tory MP spearheading efforts to promote the Covid-19 contact-tracing app trial on the Isle of Wight appears to have broken lockdown rules at a barbecue also attended by the chairman of the Brexit party and political journalists, the Guardian has learned.

Bob Seely went to the evening gathering hosted by the Spectator magazine’s deputy editor, Freddy Gray, in the village of Seaview on the island last month. Richard Tice, the Brexit party chairman, and his partner, the political journalist Isabel Oakeshott, were also there.

Seely said he was unaware others would be present when he arrived for a meeting, and that at all times social distancing was followed.

At the time, there was strict guidance against groups mixing from different households or people visiting and entering another person’s home, with the health secretary stipulating that that included gardens.

Seely, who has been a strong advocate of the government’s coronavirus app being trialled on the island, attended the barbecue with his partner. He has pushed the government’s stay-at-home message, as well as highlighting warnings against people visiting second homes. In March, Seely urged new visitors to the island to self-isolate for at least a week, adding: “We need to do what we can to make sure our NHS is not overwhelmed.”

In a statement issued to his local paper after he was approached by the Guardian, Seely said: “As the island’s MP, I have had a lot of dialogue with local residents over recent weeks. The vast majority of these have been over the phone or the internet. A handful of these – when requested – have been in person, at a 2-metre distance and outside.

“I was in Seaview two weeks ago undertaking constituency work. Whilst there, I agreed to visit someone who wanted to discuss the app. He is a journalist and an acquaintance. When I arrived, I saw another couple of people there, which I was not expecting. I thought about leaving, but felt that was perhaps overreacting.

“I apologise because, on balance, I called this wrong. It would have been better to have spoken to this person without any others nearby.”

He added: “At a sensible distance, we talked in the garden. The others left 15 minutes later, and I stayed to talk with this person [Gray] for a further 20 minutes or so. I then left. I didn’t go inside any building, nor did I have a drink. As it was after normal working hours, my girlfriend was with me.

“In the interests of being transparent, I am happy to confirm that, as the island’s MP, I have had a very small number of other such face-to-face conversations – again at a social distance – over recent weeks with other people on the Isle of Wight (such as council, media and public health representatives) when requested.”

Gray conceded he invited Seely over to discuss the contact-tracing app after they fell out over a recent article he had written, but stressed that the MP did not drink any alcohol and “didn’t stay long”. 

Tice and Oakeshott did not deny their attendance and made reference to testing their eyesight – an apparent nod to the reason given by the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, for driving to a beauty spot during lockdown. 

Oakeshott is thought to have been staying last month at her nearby apartment in Seaview, a second home which she purchased in 2018. Government rules have stated that people must remain in their primary residence, specifying that essential travel does not include visits to second homes. 

Gray’s wife was also present at the gathering on Friday 22 May, as well as his family.

The property in Seaview, part of a building split into flats with gardens, is owned by Gray’s mother-in-law, according to Land Registry records. On 3 May, Gray wrote a piece for the Spectator in which he said he had been staying on the Isle of Wight at his mother-in-law’s property. In the article, in which he questioned whether the island was the best place to launch the tracing app, he wrote: “I should admit that I am one of the dreaded ‘DFL’ (Down From London) visitors, whom most islanders despise.”

At the time of the gathering, lockdown measures had only been eased, on 13 May, to the point of allowing one person to meet one other from a different household in public outdoor settings as long as they stayed more than 2 metres apart. 

The government’s guidance stated that people could not “gather in a group of more than two (excluding members of your own household), except for a few specific exceptions set out in law (for work, funerals, house moves, supporting the vulnerable, in emergencies and to fulfil legal obligations)”.

A day before the new measures were introduced on 13 May, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, stressed that people should not meet in a person’s garden. He told This Morning: “We are not recommending that people do that [meet others] in their own gardens.” Measures have since been relaxed so that up to six people can meet outdoors, including in gardens.

Last month, the Guardian revealed that Cummings travelled 264 miles from London to Durham with his family during lockdown. During his time in the north-east, he drove to Barnard Castle with his wife and child, saying he needed to test his eyesight before a long drive.

Gray told the Guardian: “You’ve busted me. I did invite Bob over to discuss the app – since we had had a falling out over the article I had written. I did not, however, tell him that it would be a massive rave in the garden involving children flagrantly eating barbecue food, champagne and a baby being flung around.

“Bob didn’t stay long. I apologised for having caused him distress with my app article and he said no hard feelings. We talked about a follow-up piece on how the app was performing, as I moved on to white wine. Bob didn’t drink – though I believe he may have eaten one or possibly two sausages.”

Isabel Oakeshott. Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Asked for comment about his attendance at the gathering and to explain the purpose of his visit to the Isle of Wight, Tice said: “I have followed the prime minister’s advice to wash my hands, stay alert, maintain social distancing and test my eyesight when appropriate.”

Oakeshott said: “I work on the Isle of Wight all year round. It is where I go to write. I have stayed alert, washed my hands regularly and, as always, enjoyed my time on this paradise isle. Now and again I’ve also tested my eyesight, which seems to be in good order. Along with the rest of the nation, I am delighted at the recent decriminalisation of barbecues.” 

Kirsty Brimelow QC, of Doughty Street Chambers, said: “The law at that time prohibited a person leaving or being outside where they were living without reasonable excuse. Amendments on 13 May 2020 did relax the law, including a reasonable excuse as being in a public open space for ‘open-air recreation’ with one member of another household. However, it did not include a private garden.

“It is likely that going to a private barbecue would not have been a reasonable excuse. The regulations were and are draconian and often illogical with no obvious foundation in health advice. However, there have been upwards of 17,000 fixed penalty notices issued to members of the public for breaching the regulations. The government should set up a panel to review all fixed penalty notices. Otherwise unfairness and lack of trust will continue. Laws are meaningless if they are unfairly applied.”

Ian Lavery MP the former chair of the Labour party said it appeared that Seely had broken lockdown rules, adding: “Bob Seely’s actions are extremely concerning and should be taken very seriously. Boris Johnson claimed to be taking back control of the Covid-19 pandemic but this is just the latest example that shows he can’t even control his own MPs.”