Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he takes responsibility “for everything that happens in government”, following a day of fierce criticism from allies and adversaries over a Christmas party at Downing Street last year.
Fury has been directed at Mr Johnson since news broke that government employees held a party last December, while the UK was in a strict lockdown.
Last night a video was released showing then-Press Secretary Allegra Stratton joking with colleagues about a “cheese and wine” party.
Ms Stratton announced her resignation as a government spokeswoman earlier today.
In a news conference on Wednesday evening, the prime minister paid tribute to his former press secretary, calling her a “fine colleague” who “has achieved a great deal” and saying he was “very, very sorry to lose her”.
Asked whether he was concerned people would be less likely to follow guidelines as a result of the news, Mr Johnson said: “I want to repeat the fundamental point, that the British public (…) can see the vital importance of the information we’re giving and the need to take it to heart.
“It’s never been more conspicuous in the way the public has responded to the vaccine roll-out.”
When questioned about other parties in the weeks preceding the one referenced in the video with Ms Stratton, including one he may have attended, he said: “As far as I’m aware, to the best of my knowledge, the rules were followed.”
At Prime Minister’s Questions earlier on Wednesday, Mr Johnson announced an investigation into the December 18 party would be launched by the cabinet secretary and offered an apology for the video.
Fury over party continues
This evening’s Downing Street news conference came after allies including Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross and his predecessor Ruth Davidson voiced their anger over the party.
Mr Ross said it was the prime minister who should consider his position if he is found to have misled parliament.
He said: “If the prime minister knew about this party last December, knew about this party last week, and was still denying it, then that is the most serious allegation.”
Saying he was not involved with the party or invited to it, he added: “There is absolutely no way you can mislead parliament and think you could get off with that.
“No one should continue in their post if they mislead parliament in that way.”
None of this is remotely defensible. Not having busy, boozy not-parties while others were sticking to the rules, unable to visit ill or dying loved ones.
Nor flat-out denying things that are easily provable. Not taking the public for fools. 1/2
— Ruth Davidson (@RuthDavidsonPC) December 8, 2021
The video was released the night before Prime Minister’s Questions, and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said an apology offered by Mr Johnson today “raises more questions than answers”, and asked whether he had the “moral authority” to ask people to make further sacrifices to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Going to ‘Plan B’
Mr Johnson held the news conference to announce people in England should start working from home and wearing facemasks in a wider variety of places, in a bid to stem the increasing spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
The announcement came after a day of fierce criticism from allies and adversaries over a Christmas party at Downing Street last year.
The guidance to work from home is similar to that announced by Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, when the first minister asked those who were working from home at the beginning of the pandemic to do so again.
Mr Johnson also announced the NHS Covid pass would be needed to enter nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather – a year to the day since Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive a vaccine against the virus outside a clinical trial.
The move to the UK Government’s ‘Plan B’ means much of the guidance already in place in Scotland will be extended to England.
Mr Johnson said: “It’s now the proportionate and responsible thing to move to Plan B in England while working closely with the devolved administrations.”
He said the Omicron variant now has a doubling time in the UK of between two and three days, and the spread was increasing in a manner similar to that seen in South Africa where the variant was first identified.
Statistics released by the Scottish Government today showed 11 deaths across the country in the last 24 hours, while 582 people were being treated in hospital and 41 of them were in intensive care.
More than 3,000 new cases of Covid were identified in Scotland, including 382 cases of the Omicron variant.