LONDON (Reuters) -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 apparently showing staff laughing about a party in Downing Street during a 2020 Christmas COVID-19 lockdown when such festivities were banned.
The latest 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 revelations 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 government.
Asked why people – who at the time of the alleged party were prevented from bidding farewell to dying relatives in hospitals – 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 questions from reporters 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 country 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.
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.
‘ONE RULE FOR THEM’
Johnson apologised for the offence caused by the video, which he said gave the impression that those setting the rules had not been following them. But he has faced opposition calls for his resignation and was lambasted by media.
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer questioned if Johnson still had the moral authority to lead the country and ask people to obey the rules.
Downing Street had denied there was a party, though Johnson has said he has been assured the gatherings did not break any COVID-19 rules. The British media have reported a series of parties in Downing Street at the time.
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.
“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.”
“I find the timing highly suspicious,” said Jeannie Boyle, a 45-year-old financial adviser from Brighton, referring to the new restrictions. “It seems to have been deliberately done to distract from the news about Boris and his Christmas parties last year.”
It is not Johnson’s first mishap.
He has faced intense criticism in recent months over his handling of a sleaze scandal and the awarding of lucrative COVID-19 contracts.
Johnson’s Conservative Party was fined 17,800 pounds ($23,500) by the electoral watchdog on Thursday for failing to accurately report a donation that helped fund the refurbishment of his official residence.
He defended former 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.
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.
Johnson has also 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.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Guy Faulconbridge, Kylie MacLellan and Lucy Marks in London; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Alex Richardson)