UK leader orders probe amid anger over staff lockdown party

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to give a statement on Afghanistan at the Houses of Parliament, in London on Sept. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON (AP) — 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.

Johnson said that “I understand and share the anger up and down the country” at staff seeming to make light of lockdown rules.

“I was also furious to see that clip,” Johnson told lawmakers in the House of Commons. “I apologize unreservedly for the offense 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.

Johnson said he had ordered Britain’s top civil servant, Simon Case, to investigate, and said anyone found to have broken the rules would be disciplined. He added that he had been “repeatedly assured … that there was no party and no COVID rules were broken.”

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.

The Christmas party claims are the latest in a string of allegations of rule-breaking and ethics violations by Johnson’s Conservative government.

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 to slow the spread of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.

While many questions remain about the new variant, and delta remains the dominant strain across the globe, Johnson said omicron is “spreading much faster than any variant we have seen before.”

Two government ministers pulled out of planned media appearances Wednesday where they had been due to discuss the coronavirus situation and Britain’s booster vaccination campaign.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, asked about the party claims after delivering a foreign-policy speech, failed to offer a strong endorsement of the prime minister and his staff.

“I don’t know the detail of what happened,” Truss said. “I know that the prime minister’s spokesman answered those questions in detail yesterday and I am sure there will be further discussion of that issue.”