By Hira Humayun, Sarah Dean and Luke McGee, CNN
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing fierce criticism after a leaked video recording obtained by CNN affiliate ITV News shows senior Downing Street staff joking about when Johnson allegedly threw a Christmas party for his staff during last year’s lockdown.
The party is said to have happened on December 18, when London was under “Tier 3” lockdown restrictions meaning people were not allowed to mix indoors with anyone outside their household or support bubble.
The recording is of a mock press briefing on December 22, 2020, four days after the event is alleged to have taken place, according to CNN affiliate ITV.
It shows the PM’s then-press secretary, Allegra Stratton, joking when asked by a fellow No. 10 official about reports of a Christmas party. She laughs, says she “went home” then says “this fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”
Stratton, who was serving as the Prime Minister’s COP26 spokeswoman, said her comments have become a “distraction” in the fight against coronavirus, and offered her resignation on Wednesday afternoon. “I understand the anger and frustration that people feel,” she said in a statement on camera.
“To all who lost loved ones, endured intolerable loneliness and struggled with your businesses — I am sorry and this afternoon I offered my resignation to the Prime Minister.”
Johnson said Wednesday he apologizes unreservedly for the offense the leaked video has caused.
He told Prime Minister’s Questions in parliament: “I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing Number 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures.
“I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that the people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules, Mr. Speaker, because I was also furious to see that clip. I apologize unreservedly for the offense that it has caused up and down the country and I apologize for the impression that it gives.”
Johnson said he has been repeatedly assured since reports of a Downing Street Christmas party last year emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.
“I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to establish facts and report back as soon as possible. And Mr. Speaker, it goes without saying that if those rules were broken, then there will be disciplinary action for all those involved.”
Since the emergence of the video, Downing Street has reiterated “there was no Christmas party and coronavirus rules had been followed at all times.”
CNN approached numerous government officials for comment but had no reply.
Responding to the video, UK opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer told parliament Johnson “has been caught red handed.”
“Why doesn’t he end the investigation right now by just admitting it?” Starmer said.
“No one was dreaming of a Zoom Christmas, turkey dinners for one, gifts exchanged at service stations. But the virus was out of control…. So the British people put the health of others above themselves and followed the rules. Isn’t the Prime Minister ashamed that his Downing Street couldn’t do the same?” Starmer said.
On December 18, 2020, the day of the alleged Downing Street party, the UK reported 514 Covid deaths, according to the government’s dashboard.
The Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford called for Johnson’s resignation.
“It is time for members in this house to act if he doesn’t reign, that he must be removed,” he said.
Labour party lawmaker David Lammy tweeted: “While people lost their lives, No10 partied. While people stuck to the rules, No10 broke them. While the nation suffered, they joked. This is absolutely sickening. They are laughing at us all. It’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us.”
A lawmaker from Boris Johnson’s Conservative party, Tobias Ellwood, told the BBC Wednesday the government needs to show “it takes it [the criticism] seriously” and get ahead of the story.
Another Conservative MP, Charles Walker, told Times Radio on Wednesday: “I think now that, going forward, any [coronavirus] measures will be advisory. I think it would be very difficult to enshrine them in law and then once again ask our poor police forces to enforce them,” after the emergence of the video.
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CNN’s Niamh Kennedy and Amy Cassidy contributed to this report.