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UK leader orders probe amid anger over staff lockdown party

Published:Wednesday | December 8, 2021 | 9:31 AM
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves at the media as he leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the weekly Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament, in London, Wednesday, December 8, 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 apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country and I apologise 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 December 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 December 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 recognise 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 parent's house while he was falling ill with COVID-19, in breach of a nationwide “stay-at-home” order. Cummings has since left the government.

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