By Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge
LONDON -Britain on Thursday implored people to obey tougher restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant after revelations about alleged lockdown parties at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s residence provoked an outcry over hypocrisy.
Johnson imposed restrictions on England on Wednesday, just hours after apologising for a video showing staff laughing about a party in Downing Street during a 2020 Christmas COVID lockdown when such festivities were banned for the population.
The rules, including an order to work from home, wear masks in public and use vaccine passes, fell short of a lockdown, but angered some lawmakers in Johnson’s own party and the retail and leisure sectors which said they were being hammered.
But revealtions of a series of 2020 Christmas gatherings – which Johnson’s spokesman had denied were parties – provoked widespread anger, mockery and disdain due to perceived hypocrisy at the heart of British power.
Asked why people – who at the time of the alleged party were prevented from bidding farewell to dying relatives with COVID – should obey the government, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the rules applied to everyone.
“No-one is exempt. No-one is above the rules, above the law on this,” said Javid, who said he was angry and upset by the video of Downing Street staffers joking about how to swerve potential reporter questions over a lockdown party.
Britain acted, he said, after receiving tentative scientific evidence that Omicron is more able to infect people with immunity to COVID-19 and that it was spreading more swiftly than any other variant studied.
Javid said Omicron could result in around 1 million infections across the United Kingdom by the end of the month if transmission continued at the current rate.
Scientific advisers said Britain could face more than 1,000-2,000 Omicron hospitalisations per day if no action was taken – numbers that would swiftly overwhelm the National Health Service and prevent other emergency treatments.
“I hope that most people will understand that by taking some decisive action now, we can potentially avoid action later,” Javid said. Asked if tougher measures could be imposed in January, Javid said: “No. I hope not.”
Some of Johnson’s lawmakers, though, are unhappy about the new measures which they fear will yet again damage the British economy in the busy pre-Christmas period.
Downing Street had denied there was a party and Johnson has said he has been assured the gatherings did not break any COVID rules. The British media have reported a series of parties in Downing Street at the time.
Johnson apologised, but he has faced opposition calls for his resignation and was lambasted by media on Thursday morning.
“One rule for them, new rules for the rest of us,” the Daily Mail, Britain’s most read newspaper, said on its front page. The Sun said: “Do as I say not as I Christmas do”.
Britain’s most senior civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, has been tasked by Johnson with investigating the Dec. 18 Downing Street gathering, attended by around 40-50 people, as well as other such events.
It is the latest incident in a trail of scandals over members of the Johnson government breaking lockdown rules.
He defended close aide Dominic Cummings’ decision to drive 250 miles from London to obtain childcare while he suspected he had COVID-19 while Britons were in lockdown in 2020 to mitigate the initial wave of the disease.
Then-health minister Matt Hancock quit in June after he was caught breaking COVID-19 rules by kissing and embracing an aide in his office, enraging colleagues and the public who have been living under lockdown.
Johnson has been criticised for his handling of the pandemic. Britain has seen around 146,000 deaths from COVID-19, the 7th highest toll in the world.