The world is once again threatened by a new Coronavirus variant – the Omicron strand. As we get closer to the Christmas holidays, all the countries are experiencing a surge in cases. The new strand of the disease seems to be particularly contagious, quickly taking over on the previous Delta variation. One of the nations that is worrying experts is the United Kingdom. Recently, the UK Health Security Agency commented that “(I)f the growth rate and doubling time continue at the rate we have seen in the last 2 weeks, we expect to see at least 50% of coronavirus cases to be caused by Omicron variant in the next 2 to 4 weeks”. Projections demonstrate that this steep increase in transmissions will allow Omicron to be dominant in England within weeks. As London becomes a hotspot of the pandemic with over 30% of reported cases related to the new variant, the British government has reintroduced restrictions. Some of the limitations involve working from home, the use of face masks in most public indoor venues, and NHS Covid pass for nightclubs or crowded events. The health measures occur at a controversial time, with newspapers reporting that 10 Downing Street may have held Christmas parties during the strict lockdown of last year. As a result of the Downing Street Christmas Party scandal, analysts worry about a considerable decrease in the public’s confidence in sanitary measures.
No 10 is being criticised for allegedly organizing Christmas celebrations while the nation was under a rigid lockdown, banning indoors gathering of two or more people and preventing many from seeing their relatives. A leaked video released by ITV shows Allegra Stratton, a member of the Chequers staff, joking about having participated in a Christmas party at No 10 in December 2020, while England was under Tier 3 lockdown. Allegra Stratton has since then given her resignations and left her position as Johnson’s press secretary. Despite the Prime Minister denying these facts, the clip sparked public outrage and set off an official investigation into several ceremonies that took place last year. Several members of the government's staff are under police scrutiny. Besides Allegra Stratton, the former Deputy Director of Communications, Jack Doyle, allegedly gave a speech and handed out awards during a gathering of 20-30 people on the 18th of December of last year. When discussing the inquiry in the House of Commons, the paymaster General Michael Ellis said that “(T)he primary purpose of the cabinet secretary's investigation will be to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose, and with reference to adherence to the guidance in place at the time”. He also added that “(A)s with all internal investigations if, during the course of the work any evidence emerges of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the police and the Cabinet Office's work may be paused”.
Pressed on this issue, the British Prime Minister rejected the accusations and denied the parties had taken place. “I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country and I apologise for the impression that it gives”, Johnson said to the parliament. He also added that he has been “repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged, that there was no party and that no COVID rules were broken” and accused the opposition of attempting to “muddy the waters about events or non-events of a year ago”. Despite the apologies, the previous flat-renovation scandal and the party chaos pushed several Tory MPs to ask Johnson to give his resignation.
The investigation of No 10's Christmas celebrations is expected to have repercussions not only on the political arena but also on the sanitary measures newly introduced. Both the government and medical staff worry that the controversy will undermine the public’s willingness to comply with the new health restrictions meant to fight off the Omicron variant. According to Christina Pagel, the director of clinical operational research at University College London, “(A)bout 20 per cent of people said they were less adherent [to anti-COVID measures] after that (Partygate) happened”. Former chief whip Mark Harper has criticised the numerous scandals surrounding Johnson’s administration and when commenting on the new Plan B's sanitary measures he responded “Why should people at home listening to the prime minister and the secretary of state do things that people working in Number 10 Downing Street are not prepared to do?”. The new health limitations are also being criticised by the wider Tory party. The Prime Minister’s Plan B is opposed by more than 60 Conservative MPs. These MPs have pledged to vote down the introduction of mandatory Covid vaccine pass for large venues on the grounds that the government did not have enough information on Omicron to impose new restrictions.
Written by Cinzia Saro
Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.