By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) – 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 when the law prohibited Britons from meeting more than one person outside their home.
Opposition politicians called for a police investigation after broadcaster ITV leaked an email invitation to ‘socially distant drinks’ in the garden of the Prime Minister’s Office and Residence in Downing Street . The email from the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary, Martin Reynolds, went out to dozens of people and urged attendees to “bring their own alcohol”.
The event was scheduled for May 20, 2020 – the same day the government held a televised press conference to remind people that group gatherings were prohibited indoors and outdoors. The London Metropolitan Police also issued a recall that day.
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. A senior official who was investigating the charges will also investigate the latest ones.
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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 garden meeting.
But outrage is mounting as it is not the first time that Johnson’s Conservative government has been accused of flouting pandemic rules that have imposed the most severe restrictions on British personal freedoms since World War II.
During the first lockdown, which began in March 2020 and lasted more than two months, gatherings were banned with a few exceptions. Millions of people have been cut off from friends and family, and even prevented from visiting dying relatives in hospitals
While Johnson has stood up to criticism so far, his problems are mounting. The support he enjoys in his own party is eroded by discontent over the lingering restrictions linked to the pandemic, which some conservatives see as draconian. He also faces concerns about his judgment after a series of allegations of financial and ethical misconduct against him and his government.
Britain isn’t set to hold a national election until 2024, so Johnson doesn’t face a looming verdict from voters. His party is another matter. Conservatives have a habit of ousting leaders if they become a handicap – and a surprising recent loss in a by-election for a constituency the party has occupied for more than a century has heightened their nervousness.
On the day of the garden party in May 2020, 268 people with the coronavirus died in Britain, according to official figures, bringing the total of deaths to over 36,000. The total now stands at over 150,000 , the highest in Europe after Russia.
Lyndsay Jackson, whose mother died of COVID-19 this month, 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 Bereaved Families for Justice group. She told Sky News Johnson was “in contempt”.
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 have been hosting Christmas parties in violation of the lockdown in 2020 .
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.
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”.
“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 optimistic demeanor and popular touch, a choice that seemed justified when he led the Tories, as the party is known, to a big election victory in December 2019 .
But the pandemic has shaken his authority. He has been criticized for not reacting quickly enough to lock down the country, for frequent political reversals and, more recently, for allegations that he and his staff did not follow their own rules.
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.
Follow all of AP’s stories about the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.
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