British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a wave of public and political outrage on Tuesday over allegations he and his staff flouted coronavirus lockdown rules by hosting a garden party in 2020 as the law barred Britons from standing mingle outside the house.
Opposition politicians have called for a police investigation after broadcaster ITV leaked e-mails inviting “social distancing drinks” in the garden of the Prime Minister’s office and residence in Downing Street in May 2020. The email from the Prime Minister’s private secretary, Martin Reynolds, was sent to dozens of people and urged attendees to “bring your own booze”.
The event was scheduled for May 20, 2020 – the same day the government, in a televised press conference, reminded people that they can only meet one person outside of their home. The London Metropolitan Police also issued rule reminders that day.
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Police said on Tuesday they were “in contact” with the government over the party’s allegations, which follow allegations of several other rule-breaking rallies in Downing Street during the pandemic.
The opposition Labor Party demanded Johnson answer questions about the allegations in Parliament – but the government sent a deputy minister, Michael Ellis, to confront lawmakers instead. Ellis apologized “for the upheaval these allegations have caused” but said he could not comment further as an investigation was ongoing.
Deputy Labor Chief Angela Rayner said “Johnson’s absence speaks volumes.”
“He can run but he can’t hide,” she said.
In Britain’s first lockdown, which began in March 2020 and lasted for more than two months, gatherings were banned with a few exceptions, including work and funerals. Millions of people have been cut off from friends and family, and even prevented from visiting dying relatives in hospitals.
On the day of the garden party, 268 people with coronavirus died in Britain, official figures show, bringing the total of deaths to over 36,000. The total now stands at over 150,000, the toll the highest in Europe after Russia.
Lyndsay Jackson, whose mother died of COVID-19 in May 2020, said the government showed “contempt for ordinary people and for the hardships we all face.”
“I couldn’t be with her when she died, I couldn’t hold her hand.… I couldn’t even kiss my brother after the funeral,” said Jackson, a member of the COVID-19 group. Mourning Families for justice. She told Sky News Johnson was “in contempt”.
Johnson’s Conservative government has been repeatedly accused of flouting the rules it imposed on others during the pandemic, resulting in the most severe restrictions on British personal freedoms since World War II.
The latest allegations will be investigated by senior official Sue Gray, who has been appointed by the government to investigate earlier allegations that staff in Johnson’s office flouted coronavirus rules with parties of Christmas violating the lockdown in 2020.
Johnson insisted he had not personally broken any rules, but British media reported on Tuesday that the Prime Minister and his wife, Carrie Johnson, attended the May 2020 garden rally.
Health Minister Edward Argar said he understood why people would be “upset and angry” but said he would not “prejudge” the outcome of Gray’s investigation.
But Labor lawmaker Ed Miliband said the allegations were “incredibly damning” and said Johnson was to explain if he had attended the party.
“How can he lead the country through these difficult times, get people to follow public health advice, if he has broken the rules so blatantly?” Miliband told BBC radio.
Worrying for Johnson, it was not just opposition politicians who expressed their anger. The latest claims have fueled growing concern among ruling Conservatives about the Prime Minister’s leadership.
The center-right party picked Johnson as their leader in 2019 for his upbeat demeanor and popular touch, a choice that seemed justified when he led the Tories to a big election victory in December 2019.
But the pandemic has shaken his authority. Support for Johnson is eroded by discontent over the social restrictions – which some Tories see as draconian – and concern over his judgment after a series of allegations of financial and ethical misconduct.
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Ruth Davidson, former leader of the Conservatives in Scotland, said many people “will never forgive” the “totally indefensible” garden party.
“It makes fun of the idea that we were making a national effort to protect each other,” she said.