British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologised and his adviser resigned on Wednesday after a video emerged of senior aides joking about a Christmas party at Downing Street last year when social events were banned under Covid-19 rules. Later Wednesday, Johnson announced tighter coronavirus restrictions amid a surge in Omicron cases, including guidance to work from home and mandatory Covid passports.
The footage aired on national television showed aides laughing as they discussed how to respond if questioned about a ”fictional party” at Downing Street on December 18, last year – at a time when many British families had to cancel long-awaited Christmas gatherings.
Johnson on December 19, 2020, announced a strict “stay at home” alert level for London and southeastern England.
The prime minister has insisted that to his knowledge there was no party inside his Number 10 Downing Street office and no rules were broken. He has ordered an investigation into the incident.
“I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures,” Boris said during a parliamentary question session. “I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused… and I apologise for the impression that it gives.”
An advisor to Johnson, Allegra Stratton, who was his press secretary when she was featured in the footage, gave a tearful resignation speech Wednesday, offering her ”profound apologies” and saying she would ”regret those remarks for the rest of my days”.
New restrictions to curb spread of Omicron
Later in the day, and in the light of a surge in British Omicron variant cases, Johnson announced that the government was tightening coronavirus restrictions.
“We must be humble in the face of this virus”, Johnson told a briefing, adding that it was “the proportionate and the responsible thing to move to Plan B in England”.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Britain has recorded more than 10 million confirmed cases and nearly 146,000 deaths – one of the highest tolls in Europe.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Wednesday there have been 568 confirmed Omicron variant cases, but that the true figure is ”probably closer to 10,000”.
Johnson said that it was becoming increasingly clear that Omicron is ”growing much faster than the previously dominant Delta variant and ”we can’t yet assume Omicron is less severe than previous variants”.
”We just have to respond today in the way that we are,” he said, while insisting the new measures do not amount to a lockdown and people can continue with Christmas parties and children’s events such as Nativity plays as long as they ”exercise due caution”.
‘Work from home if you can’
As part of a raft of new measures, the government is reintroducing advice to work at home in England.
”From Monday, you should work from home if you can — go to work if you must,” the prime minister said.
He added that the government in a week’s time will make it compulsory to show Covid vaccine passports in England for the first time, while the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales have already brought in similar measures.
The passes will be required ”for entry into nightclubs and venues where large crowds gather”, Johnson said, specifying that this would mean indoor venues where more than 500 people gather unseated.
He also said that the passes will be required for any venue with more than 10,000 people present, such as sports stadiums.
People will have to show certification that they have received two vaccine doses or taken a negative lateral flow test.
The government is also making it a legal requirement to wear masks in ”most public indoor venues, including theatres and cinemas”, Johnson said. Mask-wearing is already legally required in England on public transport and in shops.
The prime minister stressed the importance of people taking vaccines and the booster doses now being offered. So far more almost 21 million people have received boosters in the UK.
“The single biggest thing that every one of us can do is to get our jabs and crucially to get that booster as soon as our turn arrives,” he said.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)