Alleged Christmas party at PM’s residence shakes confidence in U.K.’s pandemic efforts


At the Spring Pharmacy in east London’s Shoreditch district, you can see some of the very best and hear about some of the very worst moments of Britain’s fight against COVID-19.

On the positive side, pharmacist Raj Radia says he couldn’t be happier with the constant stream of people coming in lately to get their vaccine booster shots.

“It’s been absolutely mind-blowing in terms of having managed the whole workload — it’s going really well,” Radia said.

The U.K. is far ahead of most countries in giving out third doses of vaccines, or boosters.

More than 21 million Britons, or 37 per cent of the population, have now received top-up jabs. The plan is to make the boosters eligible to all people over 18 by the end of January.

People line up for vaccine booster shots at the Spring Pharmacy in Shoreditch, east London, earlier this week. (Lauren Sproule/CBC)

“They are so grateful,” said Radia, who noted that keeping up with the pace of vaccinations since the emergence of the omicron variant has been “challenging.”

But then, he said, “you’ve got the government that’s not following due guidance themselves [and] doesn’t set a good example to the rest of the public.”

A secret party?

While no country can boast a flawless record of public health management during the pandemic, many believe the crisis that has engulfed the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week has set a new, low bar for undermining public confidence.

First came a succession of newspaper reports indicating some on Johnson’s own team at 10 Downing Street may have held a Christmas party on Dec. 18 last year in defiance of a strict Tier 3 lockdown that banned all such gatherings.

WATCH | U.K. PM Boris Johnson accused of double standard:

Boris Johnson accused of double standard after video shows staff joking about alleged holiday party

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is being accused of holding a double standard after a video was leaked showing staffers joking about an alleged holiday party last December, when the country was under lockdown. 2:17

Back in December 2020, hundreds of people were dying of COVID-19 across the U.K. every day, bars and restaurants were closed, family gatherings were banned and the holiday plans of tens of millions of people were crushed.

This week, Johnson repeatedly denied any such party took place. But then came what appeared to be the proof.    

A leaked video of his then-press secretary Allegra Stratton showed her holding a mock press conference in the Downing Street TV studio, cracking jokes with members of her team about what to call the gathering in question should they be asked by reporters.

Between the chuckles, Stratton suggested it was really a “business meeting.” Another person wondered about calling it a “cheese and wine.”

By Wednesday morning, Johnson was on his feet in the House of Commons, not even waiting for a question from the opposition. He claimed he was “furious” and apologized “unreservedly for the offence” and for the “impression that it [the video] gives.”

Nonetheless, he continued to insist there had been no actual party, yet asked a senior public servant to investigate.

Later in the day, Stratton made a tearful apology outside her home and resigned from her job as prime ministerial advisor.

‘Massively hypocritical’

By Thursday morning, at least two additional instances of possible parties held during last year’s lockdown had also emerged, prompting a widening government investigation. Another event may have occurred at Downing on Nov. 27, while a purported party at the education department on Dec. 10 is also being looked at.

At the Spring Pharmacy, many people had seen the Stratton video, and said it left them with little doubt that some sort of gathering had happened on Dec. 18 that shouldn’t have.

Investigation launched into alleged lockdown parties held by U.K. government officials

The Cabinet Office will investigate three alleged parties held by British government officials in 2020 against official lockdown advice as the public backlash continues to grow. The office also said the matter could be referred to police. 0:51

“It was a bit of a betrayal. If you’re asking everyone to stay at home, then they should [have] stayed at home,” said Max Shipp, a volunteer who was helping out with the vaccinations. 

“I think it’s massively hypocritical,” said Sophie Gilbert, who was in to get her second dose of the vaccine. “I think it’s really rich for the government to give us rules that we have to follow and they’re not following themselves. But I think there are so many other examples of them doing that in other situations, too.”

Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, said Johnson had lost his credibility to lead the country through the pandemic crisis.

“Millions of people now think the prime minister took them for fools and they were lied to,” Starmer told the House of Commons. “Even the prime minister must understand the damage he has done to his credibility in enforcing the rules now and in the future.”

Renewed restrictions

Britons may not have to wait long to find out just how much public confidence has suffered.

Hours after his “furious” apology in the House of Commons, Johnson was back in front of the cameras — ironically,  in the same Downing Street TV studio where Stratton and the others held their mock news conference a year ago — to announce renewed COVID-19 restrictions.

Pharmacist Raj Radia of the Spring Pharmacy in London said the vaccine booster campaign has been going really well. But he’s not impressed with the reports of the government’s actions last December. (Lauren Sproule/CBC)

Effective Monday, work-from-home mandates are back, meaning anyone who doesn’t absolutely need to go into their office should stay at home. So are expanded rules on wearing masks in public, as well as requirements for vaccination passports to get into crowded venues such as bars and nightclubs.

The measures come as the U.K. continues to report stubbornly high new daily caseloads. On Wednesday, it reported 50,617 new infections, while the number of people in hospital from COVID has remained fairly stable in the range of 5,000.

As of Wednesday, Britain had reported 568 cases of the new omicron variant, although scientists say with delays in processing the data, the number is likely already many times higher than that.

“In England, it’s estimated that omicron is doubling every two to three days,” said Christina Pagel, director of clinical operational research at University College London. “That means it’s likely to be the dominant variant by Christmas.”

Johnson announced new COVID-19 restrictions this week to combat the surge in cases amid the spread of the new omicron variant. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Even so, she said that as long as people continue to show up for their third dose of vaccine, the country should be well-placed to handle omicron’s rapid spread.

“It looks as if two doses is no longer going to be enough to prevent you from getting infected [but] it might be enough to prevent you from getting seriously ill,” she said. “That’s why moving on to thinking that a full vaccination is three doses, and not two doses, is a really crucial step.”

Eroding public confidence

As for the Downing Street Christmas party controversy, Pagel says an erosion of public confidence in health measures could be extremely worrying.

She cited the case of Johnson’s former chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, who in the midst of a national lockdown in March 2020 travelled from London to the north of England with his wife, both of whom had symptoms of COVID-19.

WATCH | Johnson under fire in the House of Commons:

U.K. PM blasted over allegations of rule-breaking party

‘How does the prime minister sleep at night?’ Labour MP asks as lawmakers blast Boris Johnson over holiday party allegations. (Credit: Reuters TV) 3:15

While a police investigation cleared Cummings of any illegality, his ever-changing reasons for making the trip and attempts to dodge responsibility hurt the Conservatives and the cause of public health, said Pagel.

“About 20 per cent of people said they were less adherent [to anti-COVID measures] after that happened,” Pagel said.

She also said it’s possible that by now, people have simply come to expect less of their leaders, and that the Christmas party controversy may not change much.

“I kind of tend to think, to be honest, that people are better than their leaders.”

The prime minister had one more surprise to offer up to the nation this week.

As Johnson squirmed in front of the cameras in Parliament on Wednesday, his wife, Carrie, was about to deliver a baby.

The announcement Thursday morning of the birth of a baby girl — the couple’s second — was followed by online jokes wondering whether the PM’s next move would be to throw a baby shower at 10 Downing.

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