British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday ordered an inquiry and said he was “furious” after a leaked video showed senior members of his staff joking about holding a lockdown-breaching Christmas party.
The video has poured fuel on allegations that government officials flouted coronavirus rules they imposed on everyone else.
“I understand and share the anger up and down the country” at staff members seeming to make light of lockdown rules, Johnson said.
“I was also furious to see that clip,” he told lawmakers in the House of Commons. “I apologize unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country, and I apologize for the impression it gives.”
For days, the prime minister’s office has been trying to rebut reports that Johnson’s staff held a December 2020 office party — complete with wine, food, games and a festive gift exchange — when pandemic regulations banned most social gatherings.
According to multiple British media outlets, the party took place on Dec. 18, when restrictions in London prohibited most indoor gatherings, and a day before Johnson tightened the rules even further, ruling out family Christmas celebrations for millions of people.
The video, recorded on Dec. 22, 2020, and aired late Tuesday by broadcaster ITV, shows then-press secretary Allegra Stratton appearing to joke about an illicit party at the prime minister’s Downing Street office.
The recording appears to be a mock news conference, held as a rehearsal for televised daily government media briefings.
Another aide, playing a journalist, says: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognize those reports?”
As laughter is heard, Stratton, the press secretary, says: “I went home,” and asks colleagues: “What’s the answer?” Another voice can be heard saying: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.”
“Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting,” a laughing Stratton says.
Addressing the media outside her home on Wednesday, Stratton apologized, stating that she “will regret those remarks for the rest of my days.”
Prime minister’s office denied party was held
For several days, Johnson’s spokespeople have insisted that no party was held and no rules were broken. But on Wednesday, Johnson said he had ordered Britain’s top civil servant, Simon Case, to investigate. He said anyone found to have broken the rules would be disciplined.
Thousands of people in Britain have been fined since early 2020 for breaking restrictions by holding illegal gatherings. London’s Metropolitan Police force said officers were reviewing the leaked video in relation to “alleged breaches” of coronavirus regulations.
The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, said the prime minister should be “ashamed.”
“Millions of people now think the prime minister was taking them for fools and that they were lied to. They’re right, aren’t they?” Starmer asked Johnson during the prime minister’s weekly House of Commons question session.
Starmer contrasted the government’s behaviour with that of Queen Elizabeth II, who in April sat alone at the funeral of her husband of 73 years, Prince Philip, because of physical-distancing rules.
“Leadership, sacrifice — that’s what gives leaders the moral authority to lead,” the Labour leader said. “Does the prime minister think he has the moral authority to lead and to ask the British people to stick to the rules?”
Ian Blackford of the Scottish National Party, meanwhile, called for Johnson to resign.
Controversy follows high-profile COVID-related exits
The Christmas party claims are the latest in a string of allegations of rule-breaking and ethics violations that are stirring discontent against Johnson’s Conservative government, even among some of the party’s own lawmakers.
Last year, Johnson resisted pressure to fire his then-top aide, Dominic Cummings, for driving across England to his parents’ house while he was falling ill with COVID-19, in breach of a nationwide “stay-at-home” order. Cummings has since left the government.
In June, Health Secretary Matt Hancock resigned after leaked video showed him kissing an aide in a government office while both of them were married to other people, at a time when restrictions forbade hugs and other physical contact with people outside one’s own household.
Dr. Saleyha Ahsan, from the group COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said the Christmas party allegations were a “bullet to the chest” of families who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. Many have been barred by restrictions from visiting gravely ill or dying relatives in hospitals.
Ahsan said it was “an example of how the government have run this from the start: One rule for them, and the rest of us have to adhere to different rules.”
With over 145,000 COVID-19 deaths in the pandemic, Britain has the second-highest virus death toll in Europe after Russia.
The party allegations come as the British government considers whether to reimpose some restrictions, including a recommendation to work from home, to slow the spread of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The government would not confirm reports the “Plan B” restrictions could be introduced this week.
While many questions remain about the new variant, and delta remains the dominant strain around the globe, Johnson said omicron is “spreading much faster than any variant we have seen before.”