Rebecca Ryan, campaign director with Defund the BBC, hailed the incident as evidence that there “no depths to which the BBC will not sink” in their attempt to force Prime Minister Boris Johnson out of office, while Mr Robinson himself later apologised for his error.
Mr Robinson made his claim as he grilled Steve Barclay MP, Mr Johnson’s chief of staff, on the findings of civil servant Sue Gray’s report into multiple lockdown-busting social events connected to Downing Street in 2020 and 2021, for which Mr Johnson apologised to Parliament yesterday.
Interviewing Mr Barclay on Radio 4’s Today, Mr Robinson said: “I learned this morning that one government cleaner instructed to keep coming into work during lockdown contracted COVID and died.”
“His name was Emanuel Gomes. What do you think his family, what do you think his friends, will be thinking today when you say to them that the Prime Minister didn’t know that booze was being brought in industrial quantities so that people could relax after work?“
Mr Barclay replied: “I think all our hearts will go out to his family, just as a constituency MP I’ve heard many absolutely distressing stories from my constituents, who weren’t able to attend funerals, who lost loved ones, and it was an incredibly fraught time.”
“In this case, this man was instructed to work in Downing Street and he was surrounded by people who were routinely breaking the rules that he was told to follow.”
Nick Robinson then asked: “Was it good enough for you and the Prime Minister to say to him and others who followed the rules, ‘We didn’t really know what was going on in the building we work in’?”
Mr Barclay said: “I think you’re characterising this as if this was the norm, every day at all times. We’re talking about a small minority over the course of a two-year period, often on occasion when the Prime Minister was not in the building.”
“Of course, in terms of that specific incident, that is a heartbreaking case to flag.”
“But I think it is important to recognise that for many staff working in down the street, they worked incredibly hard, getting our vaccine rollout, getting the PPE out, right and I think it would be unfair to suggest that the actions of a very small minority on a number of specific days was reflective of the wider effort in terms of getting the big decisions right on COVID.”
In actual fact, Mr Gomes was an outsourced cleaner at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), who died in April 2020, whose death certificate said his death was not related to COVID-19.
Ms Ryan claimed the interview was emblematic of an anti-Government agenda within the corporation.
She said: “Are there no depths to which the BBC will not sink in order to try to unseat an elected Prime Minister? The broadcaster is obliged by its charter to deliver unbiased journalistic excellence.”
“Instead licence fee payers are being forced, by threat of imprisonment, to fund a campaign organisation which has a monopoly over the UK news cycle. There is no balance at the BBC and seemingly no shame.”
After the interview, Mr Robinson tweeted: “A correction & an apology: This morning in an interview with the prime minister’s chief of staff I raised the case – reported in the Critic magazine – of ‘one government cleaner who contracted Covid and died’.
“I went on to describe this man as an individual who had been instructed to work in Downing Street who was surrounded by people breaking the rules. That was a mistake and I apologise for it. Emanuel Gomes worked in the Ministry of Justice.”
He added: “There is, incidentally, a dispute about the cause of Mr Gomes’s death in April 2020 before COVID testing was routine. The family were reportedly told that he had died of COVID but the post-mortem recorded a different cause of death.”
A statement issued by the MoJ after Mr Gomes’ death said: “Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Mr Gomes, and we are extremely grateful to all the staff that have ensured our buildings remain safe for those who cannot work from home.”
Referring to the MoJ’s headquarters, the spokeswoman added: “There is no evidence to suggest there is or ever has been a coronavirus outbreak at Petty France, and we have worked with our contractors to make sure employees have appropriate protection.”
“We hope the fact that OCS colleagues are now able to self-isolate on full pay will provide financial reassurance.”
The BBC has been approached for comment about Ms Ryan’s remarks.