Amid scandal over breaking its own COVID rules, U.K. government reimposes restrictions to fight Omicron
London — The U.K. has reimposed restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus amid a scandal over senior officials breaking their own rules during last year's strict COVID-19 lockdown. The controversy has shaken public confidence in British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government, with critics saying it is undermining public health measures.
Johnson announced Wednesday that masks would be required again in most public places, working from home would be encouraged, and COVID-19 passes proving vaccination and test status would be required for large venues. He cited data showing the number of Omicron cases in the U.K. is doubling every two to three days — much more quickly than the Delta variant did.
But Johnson announced the new restrictions just days after a video surfaced that strongly implies that officials from his own office held a Christmas party last year, when COVID regulations made it illegal for people from different households to gather indoors. At the time of the alleged party, Brits faced possible fines or even arrest for breaking the rules, and many were unable to spend the holidays with their families.
Breaking their own rules?
The leaked video showed then-government spokesperson Allegra Stratton rehearsing a press briefing with other staffers in December 2020, joking about what she would do if asked by journalists about a Christmas party that took place the previous Friday.
"What's the answer?" she said, noting aloud that the practice session was being recorded.
"This fictional party was a business meeting, and it was not socially distanced," she said, laughing.
Johnson said he had been assured that no party took place, but a source confirmed to CBS News partner network BBC News that dozens of people attended a gathering at 10 Downing Street on December 18 last year with wine, cheese and games.
"I can understand how infuriating it would be to think that the people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules… because I was also furious to see that clip," Johnson told Parliament on Wednesday.
London's Metropolitan Police said they had "considered" the video and other reports of government gatherings, but that "based on the absence of evidence and in line with our policy not to investigate retrospective breaches of such regulations, the Met will not commence an investigation at this time."
This isn't the first time senior members of Johnson's government have been accused of breaking their own rules.
In March 2020, top adviser Dominic Cummings traveled almost 300 miles to stay with family during the height of the U.K. epidemic, and earlier this year, there were calls for Health Secretary Matt Hancock to resign after a security camera image showed him kissing one of his aides in his office in violation of social distancing rules.
Neither of the senior officials were removed from their office by Johnson.
"It leaves me not trusting them"
The video has caused outrage. Winter 2020 was especially difficult for many families in the U.K., with indoor gatherings forbidden by the government in many parts of the country as COVID-19 cases, and deaths, spiked.
"When I saw that video, it sickened me," Jane Roche, who lost her father and sister to COVID-19, told BBC News. "How can they laugh when so many people are going through so much heartache and pain… It leaves me not trusting them. I feel there's been lie after lie after lie, and this has been the nail in the coffin."
"People across the country followed the rules, even when that meant being separated from loved ones," opposition leader Kier Starmer tweeted in response to the controversy. "They had a right to expect the government was doing the same. To lie and to laugh about those lies is shameful. We have a Prime Minister who's socially distanced from the truth."
On Thursday, leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland urged residents to stick to public health guidelines despite their anger over Downing Street's apparent flouting of the rules.
"People can be angry at politicians, but it is important that people comply with these protections for their own safety, for the safety of loved ones and for the country as a whole," Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.
"There's no doubt that it undermines the public health message," Northern Ireland deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill said of the controversy, stressing that the focus should be on the importance of adherence to restrictions to prevent the spread of Omicron.
A government inquiry was announced on Wednesday. It will focus on two reported parties at Downing Street last December, and one at the Department of Education in November.
"As with all internal investigations, if during the course of the work any evidence emerges of behavior that is potentially a criminal offense, the matter will be referred to the police, and the Cabinet Office's work may be paused," cabinet minister Simon Case, the civil servant leading the inquiry, told Parliament on Thursday.
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