Allegra Stratton has seen her fair share of tumult since being brought in by Boris Johnson, with a stream of gaffes and a central role in some of the most vicious power struggles to have ripped through Number 10.
The PM’s former press secretary, who now serves as spokesman for COP26 president Alok Sharma, was caught today in toe-curling footage laughing about branding a Downing Street party a ‘business meeting’ to hide the fact it broke Covid laws.
The former Guardian and BBC journalist, 41, described as ‘very well connected’ and ‘part of the ”elitist” Islington crowd’, advised Chancellor Rishi Sunak, where she was credited with coming up with the slogan ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ and the nickname ‘Dishy Rishi’.
A friend of Carrie Johnson, she became Boris’ press secretary in October last year, when the idea was to hold daily White House-style televised press conferences. But the plans were dropped six months later and she was dropped from the £125,000-a-year job and given a consolation role as COP26 president Alok Sharma’s spokesman.
Since then, she has regularly raised eyebrows, urging people to join the Green Party and advising against rinsing plates before putting them in the dishwasher. She was even forced to admit she drove a diesel car because the infrastructure was not in place to switch to an electric vehicle – even though her role was to promote the Government’s green agenda.
In February, Cambridge graduate was forced to deny reports of strains with PM’s wife Carrie, saying: ‘That’s completely mental. Crazy. I love Carrie and would do anything for her. When we all go out for a drink she is just the best fun imaginable. We are all a nest of singing birds.’
Two months later claims emerged that she had ‘knowingly misled’ journalists during her time at No10 over the controversial refurbishment of Boris’ No10 flat.
The PM’s former press secretary – caught today in toe-curling footage laughing about branding a Downing Street party as a ‘business meeting’ to hide the fact it broke Covid laws – has been one of the more disaster-prone members of a notoriously dysfunctional government
Stratton, who is married to Spectator political editor James Forsyth, worked as political correspondent for the Guardian until 2012.
Former colleagues told MailOnline she was part of a group of ‘bright young things’ handpicked by the then editor Alan Rusbridger.
The group, who were mainly young women and also included former Evening Standard Emily Sheffield, were known as ‘the Rusbridger babes.’
One former colleague said: ‘She was incredibly entitled and spent as much time complaining about her cleaner as she did journalism.’
A second ex colleague recalled similarly, describing Stratton as ‘very well connected’ and ‘part of the ”elitist” Islington crowd’.
‘She joined the Guardian at a young age but even then was already well connected and known to have very good political links,’ the source said.
High-flying journalist who lasted just months at No10: Allegra Stratton’s CV
‘Handpicked’ by then editor Alan Rusbridger and served as political correspondent.
Political Editor of BBC Two’s Newsnight from 2012 to 2016.
National Editor of ITV News from 2016 to 2018 and co-presenter of Peston on Sunday from 2016 to 2018.
TORY ADVISOR –
She served in Tory HQ before becoming Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Director of Strategic Communications at the Treasury from April until October 2020.
PRESS SECRETARY –
In October she was unveiled as the new Downing Street press secretary. But within months No10 axed plans for daily media briefings.
COP26 SPOKESMAN –
In April 2021 she was newly appointed as spokesperson for COP26 President Alok Sharma – widely seen as a demotion.
‘The word was that she was personally appointed by the then editor, Alan Rusbridger and formed part of that Islington crowd – many of whom have gone on to be extremely powerful. I remember her going out for lunch with him during her first few weeks.’
After leaving the newspaper, she became political editor of BBC2’s Newsnight, before becoming a Conservative Party political advisor.
She was Rishi Sunak’s director of strategic communications from April to October 2020, when she was widely credited with helping to boost the Chancellor’s public profile and increasing his popularity during the coronavirus crisis.
Stratton reportedly came up with the slogan ‘Eat out to Help Out’ (the successful Government scheme to support the hospitality industry launched last August) and the nickname ‘Dishy Rishi’.
Her success soon caught the attention of the PM, who was reportedly irritated by polls showing his Chancellor was easily the most popular Tory politician.
He made his approach at an intimate dinner in July 2020 at Chequers, telling her, ‘Allegra, you’re coming to work for me. I’m really looking forward to it,’ before mumbling sheepishly to Mr Sunak: ‘I hope you don’t mind Rishi?’
Not only did the Chancellor mind, he was furious. He had no inkling that Stratton and Boris had even discussed her interest in the post of Downing Street press secretary to present daily televised briefings.
The move left the Chancellor feeling deeply betrayed. The Chancellor had been at Winchester with Stratton’s husband, James Forsyth, and was best man at their wedding. The two couples were not just close friends but godparents to each other’s children.
‘Allegra hadn’t mentioned a word about the new job,’ a Whitehall source said. ‘Rishi was livid. He thought Boris had behaved badly. As for Allegra it damaged his relationship with her. But Boris wanted some of the ‘Rishi magic’ to rub off [on him]’.
Her joining the PM’s team also caused a bust-up in Downing Street that led to the departure of communications director Lee Cain.
The daily press briefings were understood to have been the brainchild of Cain and Dominic Cummings – his ally – who lobbied for the appointment of the BBC’s political correspondent Ellie Price, while Carrie backed her friend Stratton.
When the job was formally advertised later that summer, Stratton applied. She underwent the interview and audition process, along with other candidates.
Stratton is friends with the PM’s wife, Carrie Johnson, who backed her for the role as Downing Street press secretary
According to sources, however, she was not judged to have out performed her rivals. In a mock press conference, Stratton allegedly got into a muddle over proposed Covid vaccinations. ‘If the press conference had been for real and her comments made public, it could have had a negative impact on a vaccine programme,’ said one Whitehall source.
Then the interviews were tested on focus groups of floating voters, the majority of whom reportedly thought that Stratton was too ‘combative and aggressive’.
A leaked civil service document suggests that the interview panel actually backed Price, who was seen as ‘calm, concise and authoritative where required’, according to the Sunday Times.
However, Boris allegedly said: ‘Forget the process. I am giving the job to Allegra. I’ve got to do this because if I don’t, Carrie will go f****** crackers about it.’
With Downing Street in a tailspin, Johnson sought to seize control and both Cummings and Cain were gone in quick succession. Reports vary about whether they resigned or were pushed.
Stratton became the press secretary for 10 Downing Street in October 2020 – achieving an important but short-lived victory.
Stratton is married to Spectator political editor James Forsyth
After Britain went into lockdown again in December, the TV briefings were postponed, although both Boris and Carrie were still set on Stratton as the telegenic, softer face of the Government.
In January, Stratton was put through her paces in a series of practice sessions with James Slack who’d been promoted to be head of communications. Generally opposed to the concept of the TV style briefings, Slack was not impressed and began to lobby the PM to drop the entire idea.
The PM did not, it seems, need much persuading. Riding high in the polls and with a successful vaccine rollout, advisers saw no reason he should not represent his own Government. Over several weeks, Stratton had taken part in conference calls with the media but, according to some participants, more than once added to the Government’s difficulties.
In a newspaper interview, Jennifer Arcuri, the American tech entrepreneur revealed lurid new details of what she claimed was a four-year extramarital affair with Boris when he was London Mayor.
When asked about the reports, instead of side stepping the issue, Stratton insisted that: ‘There is no case to answer. He [Boris] acted with honesty and integrity.’ The comments triggered incredulity and mirth – and made unwelcome headlines.
In another incident, when challenged about unsubstantiated reports that she had fallen foul of Carrie, instead of parrying the question, Stratton replied: ‘I love Carrie and would do anything for her. When we all go out for a drink she is just the best fun imaginable. We are all a nest of singing birds.’
Those bizarre comments – even though she claimed they were off the record – gave the story another lease of life.
A final straw was her response to Dame Louise Casey, a former government poverty adviser who accused the Tories of being the ‘nasty party’ in a row over benefits during the pandemic.
The ‘nasty party’ tag was first used by Theresa May nearly 20 years ago at a Tory conference. It’s a label that successive Conservative leaders have tried to escape and one that Boris certainly did not want revived.
But Ms Stratton’s reply astonished many Tory MPs, especially those who’d always been suspicious of her long-standing friendship with former Labour leader Ed Miliband. ‘There is no way this Government or this party could be called the nasty party’, she said. That a senior figure in Downing Street had even used the phrase gave the controversy new momentum.
In April 2021, she was newly appointed as spokesperson for COP26 President Alok Sharma, in what was widely seen as a demotion.
‘Losing the Downing Street role is the first setback in her career,’ a Westminster insider said at the time. ‘She’s taken it very hard.’
Stratton joining the PM’s team also caused a bust-up in Downing Street that led to the departure of communications director Lee Cain (right) and his ally Dominic Cummings (left)
Reports suggested No 10 first tried to solve the ‘Allegra problem’ by suggesting that it could be ‘arranged’ for her to take a job as spokeswoman for Prince Charles – a suggestion Stratton rejected.
However, her friends last night said she had had no idea that the Royal job was an option.
Weeks into the new role the past came back to haunt her, with Labour demanding an inquiry over claims she had ‘knowingly misled’ journalists over the refurbishment of Boris’ flat.
Labour’s demand came after a No 10 spokesman yesterday declined to deny suggestions that the Prime Minister received a loan from the Conservative Party to cover the initial costs of the refurbishment, before repaying the party.
That claim appeared to run contrary to what Stratton said the previous month. At a briefing for journalists, she repeatedly said: ‘Conservative Party funds are not being used to pay for any refurbishment of the Downing Street estate.’
In her new role with Sharma, Stratton gave a series of interviews to promote COP26 which attracted a string of negative headlines.
In July, Stratton said Britons could help save the planet by joining the Green Party – despite serving the Conservatives.
She told The Independent: ‘When people say to me, ‘What can they do?’, the can do many things.
‘They can join Greenpeace, they can join the Green Party, they can join the Tory Party.’
The former Guardian and BBC journalist became Boris’ press secretary in October last year, when the idea was to hold daily White House-style televised press conferences
She added: ‘So there’s lots of ways they can get involved in politics but for those people who wouldn’t, how do you start to change your life in manageable, achievable, feasible, small ways.’
Stratton also raised eyebrows by urging people not to wash their dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, although she later insisted these comments had been taken out of context and she had never suggested this was more than a ‘micro-step’ to avert a climate crisis.
In yet another interview, Stratton revealed that she had no intention of giving up her ageing ‘third-hand’ diesel Volkswagen Golf, which she has owned for eight years, in favour of an electric car.
This comment saw her backing myths that electric cars have a short range.
She said: ‘I don’t fancy [an electric car] just yet.’
Critics said she was stoking misplaced ‘range anxiety’ as electric cars can commonly go for 200 miles without a recharge.
Going electric is a key part of the Government’s climate strategy. No new petrol and diesel cars will be allowed to go on sale by 2030.
In her kitchen in Islington, North London, Ms Stratton hangs a portrait of Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted as Donald Trump’s communications director for 11 days.
It had long been the joke in her family about whether she would make it to 12 days as press secretary. As it happened, she never even got to day one to shine in front of the cameras in the role specially created for her.
PM tries to quell fury over ‘illegal’ No10 Christmas party by ordering Cabinet Secretary to investigate and APOLOGISING for bombshell video of giggling aides – as he warns of ‘disciplinary action’ if Covid rules were broken
By James Tapsfield, Political Editor and Martin Robinson, Chief Reporter for MailOnline
How the No 10 party is alleged to have taken place when millions of Britons were forced into near-lockdown
1. December 2 – London enters Tier 2 after second national lockdown banning social mixing indoors between households
2. December 10 – Gavin Williamson hosts Department for Education party for ‘up to 24 people’
3. December 16 – London enters Tier 3 restrictions banning all mixing of households except in parks
4. December 18 – Party for No10 staff is allegedly held inside Downing Street for ‘dozens’ of staff
5. December 19 – Boris Johnson holds dramatic press conference putting London into Tier 4 and cancelling Christmas
6. December 20 – London officially enters Tier 4 restrictions at midnight
7. December 22 – Allegra Stratton jokes about Downing Street party during practice press conference which is recorded on video
8. January 6 – England enters third national lockdown
Boris Johnson tried to quell mounting fury over the ‘illegal’ No10 Christmas party today ordering an investigation by the Cabinet Secretary and apologising for a bombshell video of giggling aides.
Mr Johnson opened a raucous PMQs by saying sorry for the footage of his former press secretary and other staff joking about the gathering during lockdown.
He said the top civil servant Simon Case would be looking into the situation, but insisted he had ‘repeatedly’ been assured that no rules had been broken.
Mr Johnson said that ‘disciplinary action’ would be taken against any staff found to have breached the regulations.
The premier appealed for the public to focus on the threat from the Omicron strain – with Plan B measures expected to be confirmed as early as this afternoon. But Keir Starmer shot back that Mr Johnson had lost the ‘moral authority’ to impose restrictions.
Kicking off the clashes, Mr Johnson said: ‘I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures, and I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules because I was also furious to see that clip.
‘I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country and I apologise for the impression that it gives.
‘But I repeat that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken, and that is what I have been repeatedly assured.
‘I have asked the cabinet secretary to establish all the facts and to report back as soon as possible – and it goes without saying that if those rules were broken then there will be disciplinary action for all those involved.’
Mr Johnson said No10 would hand over any relevant evidence to the police if they ask for it.
But the Labour Leader said: ‘An internal investigation into what happened – the situation is as clear as day. I thought last week was bad enough.
‘Surely the Prime Minister hasn’t now going to start pretending that the first he knew about this was last night? Surely we have all watched the video of the Prime Minister’s staff including his personal spokesperson.
‘They knew there was a party, they knew it was against the rules, they knew they couldn’t admit it, and they thought it was funny.
‘It is obvious was happened. Ant and Dec are ahead of the Prime Minister on this. The Prime Minister has been caught red-handed. Why doesn’t he end the investigation right now by just admitting it?’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘Because I have been repeatedly assured that no rules were broken. I understand public anxiety about this… but there is a risk of doing a grave injustice to people who have frankly obeyed the rules.
‘That is why the Cabinet Secretary will be conducting an investigation, and that is why there will be requisite disciplinary action if necessary.’
Conservative MPs have been turning on the PM, with demands for him to provide an ‘explanation’ and even warnings that misleading parliament on what happened will be a ‘resigning matter’.
One government source told MailOnline that the situation was an ‘absolute joke’, adding: ‘A friend said to me ”you look like a bunch of c***s”. It was hard to argue.’
Another MP said of Mr Johnson’s leadership: ‘I’m tired of it. He has to go. Clean sweep. It’s unsustainable’. A third said: ‘It confirms my suspicion of the sheer arrogance and hypocrisy of those orchestrating lockdown measures.’
Baroness Warsi, a former Cabinet minister turned critic, said ‘every minister, parliamentarian and staffer’ at the alleged party ‘must resign now’.
Mr Johnson had hoped to grab the news agenda this week with a slew of crime measures, after weeks of torrid sleaze headlines.
But Health Secretary Sajid Javid pulled out out of interviews this morning following the emergence of the footage showing the PM’s former press secretary Allegra Stratton laughing about the lockdown-busting gathering last year.
As bereaved families branded the revelations a ‘bullet to the chest’, Scotland Yard is set to probe the exchanges which took place during a rehearsal for a media briefing.
Attorney General Suella Braverman was seen going into the building this morning, although it is not clear whether her visit was related. Mr Javid has also entered, ignoring questions about why he ducked interviews.
Extraordinarily, there are signs that the government is preparing to announce a move to ‘Plan B’ Covid restrictions to combat the Omicron strain – including blanket orders to work from home, more mask-wearing as early as today.
Such a shift had not been expected before the end of this week, and Mr Johnson is bound to face accusations he is deploying the ‘dead cat’ tactic – making a big newsworthy announcement in order to distract attention from another crisis.
BBC Breakfast took the extraordinary step of empty-chairing Mr Javid this morning as vaccines minister Maggie Throup also pulled out of her planned round of regional television interviews. On ITV’s Good Morning Britain, host Susanna Reid swiped that the government was ‘gaslighting’ by pretending there is not any need to answer questions.
The footage of Ms Stratton was filmed on December 22 last year – four days after the alleged ‘boozy’ party and when London was under strict Tier 3 coronavirus curbs. The revelation follows a week of tortured denials from No 10 that there was a ‘party’ – even though dozens of staff allegedly exchanged ‘secret Santa’ gifts and drank past midnight at an event said to have included party games.
Boris Johnson (left) appealed for the public to focus on the threat from the Omicron strain – with Plan B measures expected to be confirmed as early as this afternoon. But Keir Starmer (right) shot back that Mr Johnson had lost the ‘moral authority’ to impose restrictions.
Mr Johnson opened a raucous PMQs by saying sorry for the footage of his former press secretary and other staff joking about the gathering during lockdown
It came as new plans for Britons to work from home and for offices to be closed are being drawn up by the Government to curb a surge in Omicron variant case numbers over the festive period – but Tory MPs admitted the ‘indefensible’ and ‘catastrophic’ video could mean the public will resist or ignore more restrictions because of a lack of ‘moral authority’ in No 10.
Some backbenchers had even suggested that Mr Johnson’s could be forced to resign unless he ‘holds his hands up’ because of the video, which calls into question his insistence that all the rules had been followed at the time.
Former minister Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford, demanded an apology.
‘I am fuming! My constituents have every right to be angry,’ she told Kent Online.
‘Their memories of lost loved ones are traumatised knowing that they died alone, first and last Christmases passed by, and many spent what is usually a special day by themselves.
‘I am not even going to begin to justify or defend a party in Downing Street. We all deserve a fulsome explanation and apology and swiftly.’
Conservative Sir Roger Gale said today that the situation bore ‘all the hallmarks of another ‘Barnard Castle’ moment’ – a reference to the Prime Minister’s former aide driving 260 miles during strict lockdown conditions last year.
He said: ‘This is like something out of The Thick Of It. If you wrote it, people wouldn’t believe it. Boris Johnson has always been his own man and done his own thing in his own way. I think he has a certain amount of explaining to do. This is no laughing matter. I want PM to come to the dispatch box and say there either was a party or wasn’t. There has to be an explanation by lunchtime today’.
Even Ant and Dec got in on the act last night, mocking Boris Johnson over the Downing Street Christmas party on I’m a Celebrity 2021 and saying: ‘Evening Prime Minister… for now.’
Police are yet to launch a criminal investigation – but will be reviewing the footage before a decision is taken. It is understood that a senior officer looking at the matter will now consider the contents of the video in the coming days.
‘We are aware of footage obtained by ITV News relating to alleged breaches of the Health Protection Regulations at a Government building in December 2020’, a Met spokesman said. ‘It is our policy not to routinely investigate retrospective breaches of the Covid-19 regulations, however the footage will form part of our considerations’.
As chaos threatened to engulf the government today:
- The Prime Minister has warned that the Omicron variant appears to be ‘more transmissible’ than previous strains and is spreading quickly;
- Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, whose data were instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020, says a new one in January cannot be ruled out;
- Ex-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has been accused of throwing a ‘drinks and canapes’ event in his former department while London was under Tier 2 restrictions on December 10 last year;
BBC Breakfast today decided to ’empty chair’ Sajid Javid for pulling out of national interviews in the wake of the Downing Street party video
In the bombshell video a No 10 aide asks a question about ‘a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night’, to which Allegra Stratton laughed and replied: ‘I went home.’ Downing Stree
The clip, discovered by ITV news shows Allegra Stratton, then the PM’s press secretary, and Ed Oldfield, No10’s head of digital, rehearsing a question and answer session in the No9 briefing room.
On ITV’s Good Morning Britain, host Susanna Reid swiped that the government was ‘gaslighting’ by pretending there is not any need to answer questions
The footage was released after Boris Johnson had earlier refused to answer questions about the gathering, with questions raised over whether it breached social distancing rules in place at the time.
Attorney General Suella Braverman was seen going into No10 this morning, although it is not clear whether her visit is related. Mr Javid has also entered, ignoring questions about why he ducked interviews
Baroness Warsi, a former Cabinet minister turned critic, said ‘every minister, parliamentarian and staffer’ at the alleged party ‘must resign now’
The damning role-play
Ed Oldfield (PM’s special adviser): ‘I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?’
Allegra Stratton: ‘I went home (laughs)… hold on, hold on, erm, err…’
Ed Oldfield: ‘Would the Prime Minister condone having a Christmas party?’
Allegra Stratton: ‘(laughs) What’s the answer?’
Ed Oldfield: ‘I don’t know!’
Downing Street Employee (unidentified): ‘It wasn’t a party… it was cheese and wine.’
Allegra Stratton: ‘Is cheese and wine alright? It was a business meeting.’
Downing Street Employee: ‘No! … was joking!’
Allegra Stratton: ‘(laughs) This is recorded. This fictional party was a business meeting… (laughs) and it was not socially distanced. Umm one more and then we’ll… one more. Anybody have any questions today?’
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme said Mr Javid was scheduled to feature this morning, but cancelled after the footage emerged.
Presenter Nick Robinson said: ‘We were expecting to speak to the Health Secretary Sajid Javid this morning but we were told just a few minutes after that video emerged that no minister would be available to speak on the programme today.’ Mr Javid was also due on outlets such as BBC1, Sky News and Times Radio.
The damning clip, which was leaked to ITV News, shows Ms Stratton and aides joking about cheese and wine and suggesting the ‘fictional’ event was ‘not socially distanced’. Miss Stratton, who is still on the No 10 payroll earning £125,000 a year, was practising for planned TV media briefings, which were later axed.
At the time of the alleged event, on December 18, Christmas parties were outlawed – on pain of £10,000 fines – and many families were even barred from visiting dying loved ones. Mixing indoors with people from other households was banned in the capital.
No 10 was still insisting last night that there had been ‘no Christmas party’ and that coronavirus rules were followed at all times. But ministers were aghast at the crass video, with one privately describing it as ‘appalling’.
Insiders fear the release of the toxic footage could unleash a wave of public anger, similar to the fury over the trip to Barnard Castle by Dominic Cummings at the height of the first lockdown.
A Downing Street insider acknowledged the video was a ‘disaster’, adding: ‘No 10 aides laugh at their party as thousands cry for their dead.’
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss insisted ‘we do follow the rules on Covid’ as she was questioned about the alleged party at a Chatham House event.
She said: ‘As to alleged events in Number 10, I don’t know the detail of what happened.
‘I know that the Prime Minister’s spokesman answered those questions in detail yesterday and I am sure there will be further discussion of that issue.’
Asked why citizens should trust an administration that did not follow the rules, she added: ‘We do follow the rules on Covid.’
But ‘I’m not aware of the precise circumstances and I know the Prime Minister’s spokesman has addressed that issue’.
One Tory MP told MailOnline that most colleagues were ‘waiting to see what the PM says at PMQs’.
‘He needs to come out today and just be straightforward and say what happened. Not answering won’t work. Maybe they are planning to fire some people.’
The backbencher pointed out that future inquiries will uncover details anyway. ‘If you have done something wrong, go to parliament and explain it. You have much more chance of getting away with it.
‘The cover-up is the thing that gets you. So you have got to be brutally honest.’
‘They won’t be the only people to have an illegal party at that time, but you don’t have an illegal party in No10 do you?’
The MP also suggested that Mr Cummings and his allies might have been involved in leaking the video. ‘It has to be someone senior. Who had them and kept them this long? It does feel like a Cummings operation,’ they said.
Becky Kummer, of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: ‘There are simply no words to describe how upsetting and shameful it is to hear Boris Johnson’s team laughing about breaking the rules they had made, while others followed them and could only say goodbye to their loved ones through a screen. It’s the behaviour of people who think they’re above us.’
The clip, obtained by ITV news, shows Ms Stratton, then the PM’s press secretary, and Ed Oldfield, No10’s head of digital, rehearsing a question and answer session in the No9 briefing room.
In it Oldfield asks a question about ‘a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night’, to which Ms Stratton laughs and replies: ‘I went home.’
When he asks if the Prime Minister would condone such a party, Ms Stratton appears unsure how to respond and asks the room: ‘What’s the answer?’
Ex-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has been accused of throwing a ‘drinks and canapes’ event in his former department while London was under Tier 2 restrictions on December 10 last year. Mr Williamson is said to have given a short speech at the evening event before ministers ‘mingled’ and knocked back wine. One source described it as ‘reckless’
It is reported that up to two dozen of Mr Williamson’s staff attended a ‘drinks and canapes’ event in the department’s Westminster offices (pictured). The DfE did not deny the report by the publication, instead admitting that it ‘would have been better’ not to have held it while several parts of the country were banned from doing so
Mr Johnson has not confirmed or denied reports that members of his Downing Street team staged a party on December 18 last year when London was under Tier 3 restrictions. Pictured: Mr Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street on December 15, 2020 to attend weekly cabinet held at the nearby Foreign Office to ensure social distancing
A third voice can be heard saying ‘it wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine’, before Ms Stratton added: ‘It was a business meeting … this fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.’
The footage was released after Boris Johnson had earlier refused to answer questions about the gathering, with questions raised over whether it breached social distancing rules in place at the time.
The Metropolitan Police has said it was aware of the footage and is considering an investigation into the alleged breaches of Covid-19 regulations in government buildings last December.
Asked about it on a visit to a London prison yesterday, Mr Johnson would only say that all the rules had been followed at the time. Other ministers have refused to confirm if a party happened or not.
Sir Keir Starmer responded to the footage of Downing St aides joking about the party by saying that Boris Johnson needed to ‘come clean and apologise’.
The Labour leader said: ‘People across the country followed the rules even when that meant being separated from their families, locked down and – tragically for many – unable to say goodbye to their loved ones.
‘They had a right to expect that the government was doing the same.
‘To lie and to laugh about those lies is shameful. The Prime Minister now needs to come clean, and apologise.
‘It cannot be one rule for the Conservatives and another for everyone else.’
In response to the footage, a Downing Street spokesman said: ‘There was no Christmas party. Covid rules have been followed at all times.’
The leaked footage was shot in the media room at 9 Downing Street, which was refurbished at a cost of £2.6 million in preparation for the televised broadcasts before the plan was ditched.
Parties were banned under Covid restrictions at the time. Mr Johnson has not confirmed or denied reports that members of his Downing Street team staged a party on December 18 last year when London was under Tier 3 restrictions but he has insisted that no rules were broken.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab reignited the party row yesterday after he said it would have been a clear breach of Covid rules at the time if Mr Johnson’s staff held a party in Number 10 in the run-up to last Christmas.
The PM yesterday insisted no rules were broken, after the Times reported that staff wore festive jumpers and were asked to bring ‘secret Santa’ gifts.
They were reported to have brought alcohol and food to the event said to have been attended by dozens of colleagues
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman has insisted ‘there was not a party’ but the Prime Minister declined to characterise the event during a visit to a prison in London on Tuesday.
‘What I can tell you is that all the guidelines were observed, continue to be observed,’ he told reporters.
Asked if he investigated personally, Mr Johnson said: ‘I am satisfied myself that the guidelines were followed at all times.’
The spokesman later added that ‘our position has not changed’ following Mr Johnson’s comments.
Last night, several families who lost loved ones over the Christmas period last year vented their fury at the latest developments in shambolic party saga, calling it a ‘betrayal’ of families who followed the rules.
Louisa Backway, whose father died of prostrate cancer after being unable to spend his last Christmas with his children and grandchildren, said she and her family are ‘furious’ after watching the video.
‘To know now that I sacrificed the last time that my dad could see his grandchildren, the last time that I could see my dad when he was well and himself, I can’t get that time back,’ she told ITV News.
Asked about the party on December 18 on a visit to a London prison (pictured) yesterday he would only say that all the rules had been followed at the time. Other ministers have refused to confirm if a party happened or not.
The PM yesterday insisted no rules were broken, after the Times reported that staff wore festive jumpers and were asked to bring ‘secret Santa’ gifts. Pictured: The PM returns to Downing St on December 30 last year
Mr Johnson, pictured in Downing Street on December 1 this year, has insisted all Covid rules have been complied with in Number 10
Referring to Mr Johsnson, Louisa added: ‘I probably can’t really say what I think about him right now, because I’m just, I’m just so angry, so angry. And I’m sure many people are.’
Trisha Greenhalgh, a Professor in Primary Care, took to social media to recall her heartbreak as her mother died on Christmas without any family by her side.
Addressing her tweet to Allegra Stratton, the Oxford lecturer wrote: ‘On the day you partied, my mother called me, breathless and feverish. I didn’t visit. On the day you joked, she was admitted to hospital. I didn’t visit.
‘As you celebrated Christmas, she died without family by her side. I promise you, it wasn’t funny.’
Ministers are yet to explain how the alleged bash complied with the rules in place at the time, despite coming under pressure since an initial report in the Daily Mirror.
The newspaper said two events took place in No 10 in the run-up to the festive season last year, including Mr Johnson giving a speech at a leaving do during November’s lockdown.
While Mr Johnson has stuck by his explanation that rules were obeyed, several Cabinet colleagues have swerved questions about the party.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid faced questions on the issue as he faced his new Labour shadow, Wes Streeting, the MP for Ilford North, in the Commons yesterday.
‘Residents in Ilford are this week being prosecuted for holding an indoor gathering of two or more people on December 18, 2020, and rightly so,’ Mr Streeting said.
‘Isn’t it time that the Government comes clean about the event in Downing Street on that same day, admit they broken the rules and apologise? Or does the Secretary of State believe, as the PM appears to, that it is one for rule and another for everyone else?’
Mr Javid replied only to say: ‘In terms of rules, of course they should apply to everyone, regardless of who they are.’
Policing Minister Kit Malthouse had earlier insisted he had been ‘reassured that all of the regulations were complied with’ as he was grilled over the Downing Street Christmas party row.
Mr Malthouse clashed with BBC Radio 4 Today programme presenter Mishal Husain during a fiery interview as she asked him to make sense of the Government’s position.
The Tory frontbencher said he is ‘not an investigator’ but he had ‘asked the question was all the regulations compiled with’ and he had been ‘reassured they were’.
It came as Downing Street said it intends to hold a Christmas party for staff this year.
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said: ‘We haven’t confirmed any dates at the moment. I think there is an intention to have a Christmas party this year.’
Boris Johnson has insisted that Christmas parties should go ahead this month despite the return of some Covid restrictions to stop the spread of the Omicron variant.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab reignited the party row after he said it would have been a clear breach of Covid rules at the time if Mr Johnson’s staff held a party in Number 10 in the run-up to last Christmas.
Health Secretary Mr Javid faced questions on the issue as he faced his new shadow Wes Streeting, the MP for Ilford North, in the Commons this afternoon to update MPs about the new Omicron variant.
What were the rules on December 18 last year?
With just days to go until Christmas 2020, Covid restrictions were ramped up as the situation on infections and hospitalisations ‘deteriorated’.
London, and Downing St at its centre, were moved into a Tier 3 set of restrictions to fight the ‘exponentially increasing’ Covid case rate.
The following rules were put into force on December 17 for London following a review of tiers:
– No mixing of households indoors, or most outdoor places, apart from support bubbles;
– A maximum of six people in some outdoor public spaces (e.g. parks, public gardens);
– Events should not take place;
– People should avoid travelling outside their area, other than where necessary such as for work or education. Reduce the number of journeys where possible;
– Hospitality is closed, with the exception of sales by takeaway, drive-through or delivery;
– Retail, indoor leisure and personal care are allowed to remain open.
There was to be the saving grace of a five-day relaxation period over Christmas, but this was scrapped just days later after the situation continued to deteriorate.
Mr Raab, who is also the Justice Secretary, said he did not know the truth of the reports based on ‘unsubstantiated claims all on the basis of anonymous sources’, but if they turned out to be correct, then there would have been a breach.
He said that ‘if there was a formal party held, of course that is something that is clearly contrary to the guidance’.
Ms Husain asked Mr Malthouse this morning if a hypothetical gathering at the BBC last Christmas involving ‘several dozen of us, drinks, nibbles, party games’ would have been within the rules.
He replied: ‘Well, you are asking me a hypothetical question. I would have said to you you have to abide by the regulations.’
Mr Malthouse said he asked Number 10 ahead of his broadcast round of interviews this morning ‘whether regulations were complied with’ and ‘I was reassured that all of the regulations were complied with’.
Last week The Daily Mirror reported that two events took place in Number 10 last year in the run-up to the festive season.
The first was said to have been a leaving do for a senior aide held in November, when the country was in a second national lockdown, apparently attended by Mr Johnson who gave a speech.
The second was reportedly a staff party in December where, according to multiple reports, party games were played, food and drink were served, and the revelries went on past midnight.
The rules in place in the capital at the time explicitly banned work Christmas lunches and parties where it was ‘a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted’.
UK’s Covid cases spike again amid growing Omicron wave: Daily infections jump 15% in a week to 45,691 as Boris warns super-mutant variant IS ‘more transmissible’ with numbers doubling every two days
ByJoe Daviesand Connor Boyd Deputy Health Editor For Mailonline
Britain’s Covid crisis continued to surge yesterday in the face of the spiralling Omicron crisis, with cases increasing again on last week and Boris Johnson warning the super-mutant variant is more transmissible.
Government figures showed there were 45,691 new positive tests over the last 24 hours, up 15 per cent on last Tuesday’s figure of 39,716.
Experts believe Omicron now makes up to almost two per cent of all new infections, suggesting up to 1,000 people are currently being struck down every day.
The true overall toll, however, is just 437 because only a fraction of samples are analysed. Health chiefs have already warned that it is now spreading domestically in multiple regions.
Despite cases continuing to tick upwards, hospital admissions are flat (up 0.7 per cent on last week) but are expected to rise in the coming days in line with infections. Deaths appear to already be trickling upwards, jumping 13.2 per cent to 180.
The figures come after Mr Johnson told ministers at a Cabinet meeting yesterday that it was too early to tell if Omicron does indeed spread easier than Delta but admitted the preliminary data pointed in that direction.
Ministers have publicly ruled out resorting to No10’s Plan B strategy of working from home and vaccine passports, despite grim warnings about the threat of facing Britain in the coming weeks.
But Mr Johnson’s official spokesman yesterday dangled the possibility of another festive lockdown, insisting the Government would act ‘swiftly’ if needed.
But real-world data suggests the variant may be milder than other strains. None of the recorded cases in the UK — which are just a fraction of the true toll — have been hospitalised, Health Secretary Sajid Javid revealed last night, mirroring reports from doctors in the ground zero of the outbreak in South Africa.
Top scientists warn that even if it is not more lethal, the NHS will still face more pressure from Omicron than other variants because of the sheer number of people who will get ill.
Scientists expect booster jabs to give high protection against severe illness and death from Omicron, even if the variant makes vaccines much less effective at preventing infection.
No10 announced last week that it plans to ramp up the booster programme to 500,000 jabs per day and offer a third dose to all 53million British adults by the end of January to shield against the incoming wave. But the scheme already appears to be stalling with fewer than 330,000 delivered across Britain yesterday and just 380,000 administered each day on average.
Eminent epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector claimed infections of the highly evolved variant were doubling every two days. The above graph, based on MailOnline analysis, shows how the number of daily cases of Omicron could breach the 100,000 barrier before New Year’s Day, if that pace continues
No10 announced last week that it plans to ramp up the booster programme to 500,000 jabs per day and offer a third dose to all 53million British adults by the end of January to shield against the incoming wave. But the scheme already appears to be stalling with less than 330,000 delivered across Britain yesterday and just 380,000 administered each day on average. At the current rate, all eligible adults will not be boosted until February 10
Yesterday’s figures show Britain dished out 329,165 boosters yesterday, taking the total number of adults receiving a third dose up to 20.9million (36.4 per cent). At the current rate, all eligible adults will not be boosted until February 10.
Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, slammed the Government for being ‘stuck in first gear’ with the rollout.
He told MailOnline: ‘We want the Government to succeed, but the truth is they’ve been stuck in first gear on the booster roll-out.
‘Let’s hope they’ve finally got a grip and that the latest promises come to fruition. I’m encouraging everyone to get the jab as soon they’re eligible.’
The number of people dying with the virus took the UK’s total amount of fatalities within 28 days of catching the virus up to 145,826.
Separate figures looking at whether Covid was mentioned on the death certificate suggest the true number of fatalities now stands at 170,001.
Meanwhile, Dr Jeffrey Barrett, head of Covid surveillance at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said Omicron was likely to become the UK dominant strain ‘within a matter of weeks’ rather than months like initially hoped.
Scientists predicted just yesterday that it would take until mid-January for Omicron to outpace Delta.
Echoing No10’s official stance before Cabinet met, Dominic Raab claimed ministers were not looking to bring in tougher Christmas curbs, despite the sharp uptick in Omicron. ‘We don’t think Plan B is required,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. ‘Why? Because of the success of the vaccine programme.’
Updating his Cabinet on the latest situation this morning, the Prime Minister admitted it was too early to tell if the super-mutant strain was indeed worse but ‘early indications’ pointed in that direction
In total, there are 46,000 Covid cases on average each day in the UK and data from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests the new strain is already behind around one in 66 of them, or 1.4 per cent
This is the image that has sparked fear among scientists, prompted ministers to turbocharge the UK’s booster vaccine rollout and seen the return of mask mandates in England. It details the new super-mutant Omicron variant’s spike protein mutations which experts fear will make it the most infectious and vaccine-resistant strain yet. The graphic, released by the country’s top variant monitoring team, also lays bare how it is far more evolved than even the world-dominant Delta strain, with nearly five times as many alterations on the spike
Scientists expect booster jabs to give high protection against severe illness and death from Omicron, even if the variant makes vaccines much less effective at preventing infection.
No10 announced last week that it plans to ramp up the booster programme to 500,000 jabs per day and offer a third dose to all 53million British adults by the end of January to shield against the incoming wave.
But the scheme already appears to be stalling with just 290,000 delivered across Britain. And, on average, just 378,000 are being administered each day.
Mr Johnson later said now is the time’ for people to get a booster jab.
‘The booster programme is the fastest in Europe; I think we have done more boosters than any comparable country,’ he told reporters. ‘That doesn’t mean it couldn’t go faster.’
He added: ‘I would certainly say to people that now is the time to get it and, of course, from Monday, we will be contracting the interval so you go down to three months and that will lead to a big uptick in the programme as well.’
Scientists fear that Omicron will be able to trigger a wave of hospital admissions on par with the peak in January 2021, even if reports that it is milder than Delta coming out of South Africa are true.
The virus appears to be able to infect former Covid patients with ease and UK Government experts expect it to make existing vaccines up to 40 per cent weaker at stopping an infection.
Experts have warned that if Omicron can infect far more people then it could cause a larger surge in admissions, even if only a small percentage need to be hospitalised.
Asked whether Omicron could infect more people but make fewer people sick, Professor Spector told BBC Breakfast: ‘If early reports pan out – we don’t absolutely know this, we’ve got hardly any data in this country where we have high rates of vaccination – but if we assume that it is not more severe and possibly milder than Delta, but it’s much more transmissible…
‘So it means that perhaps twice as many people are going to pass it on from when someone gets it in a crowd. That’s going to be good news for the individual because we have less cases going to hospital, and partly this is due to our high vaccination rates.
‘But it’s also means that eventually you will get more deaths and problems because nearly everyone is infected or re-infected.
‘And so, this this means that for the country as a whole, it could be worse news but better for the individual. So it’s absolutely no reason for complacency.’
There has been a meteoric rise in Covid infections in South Africa in the fortnight since it alerted the world to Omicron’s existence on November 24.
Professor Spector, who runs the Covid ZOE symptom study, said that in around 10 days’ time the UK could have more cases of Omicron than some countries it had put on the travel red list.
He added: ‘The official estimates are about 350-odd Omicron cases, and because the current testing is missing a lot of those, it’s probably at least 1,000 to 2,000 I would guess at the moment.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid (left) warned the variant is now spreading domestically in multiple regions, with the official count now standing at 437 although none of those infected with it have been hospitalised. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab (right) yesterday claimed that ministers were not looking to bring in tougher Christmas curbs, working from home or vaccine passports, despite the sharp uptick in Omicron. Both ministers are pictured arriving in Downing Street this morning ahead of the government’s weekly Cabinet meeting
Mr Raab was more definitive than Boris Johnson (pictured running his dog Dilyn, a two-year-old Jack Russell-cross, in Westminster this morning) who yesterday refused to rule out tightening restrictions over the festive period, merely insisting that Christmas will be ‘better’ than last year
South Africa’s cases have skyrocketed since Omicron was first discovered. Last month, the country recorded 358 daily cases, compared to the 6,381 registered yesterday. The daily figure is the lowest since Tuesday, but is due to low testing rates over the weekend, with just 24,159 people swabbed yesterday. The positivity rate — the proportion of all tests conducted that are confirmed Covid cases — rose to a record 26.4 per cent
Some 175 South Africans were hospitalised with the virus, up 121.5 per cent on the 79 people admitted to hospital last Monday. The number of patients in hospital with the virus is at 3,517, up 51.1 per cent in a week. Pictured: graph shows weekly Covid hospitalisations
All 120 partygoers who caught Omicron super-strain at Norwegian Xmas work night out have MILD symptoms
None of the 100-plus partygoers who caught Omicron at a Norwegian Christmas party believed to be the world’s biggest coronavirus super-spreader event have fallen seriously unwell.
Doctors involved in tracing the outbreak say the infected are so far only suffering very mild symptoms like fevers, coughs, headaches and tiredness following the festive do on November 26.
Some 120 people who attended the Louise Restaurant and Bar in Oslo have tested positive for Covid, all of which are suspected to be Omicron but only 13 have been confirmed in a lab.
Seventy of the infected were employees of solar power company Scatec, who were celebrating their Christmas work night out, while the remaining 50 were other guests at the restaurant. The party was held in a closed room but guests reportedly mingled with other people in the restaurant after 10:30pm, when it turned into a nightclub.
‘Patient zero’ is thought to be a Scatec staffer who had recently returned from the company’s head office in Cape Town, where the variant is already dominant nationally. They tested positive the day after the party. At least one other employee had also recently returned from a trip to South Africa.
The Oslo outbreak made international headlines and was the first warning sign to Europe that the highly-evolved variant was viciously virulent and could outpace Delta on the continent.
But Dr Tine Ravlo, a public health expert in the Norwegian capital involved in tracking the outbreak, said that so far ‘none have become severely ill and none of them have been treated in hospital’.
The development lends weight to the theory that Omicron might be weaker than past variants, and is consistent with reports from doctors in ground zero of the outbreak in South Africa.
‘And we are expecting this to be doubling about every two days at the moment, so if you do your maths – say assumed it’s 1,000 at the moment, and you think it’s going to be doubling every two days, you can see that those numbers are going to be pretty (high) certainly in about 10 days time.’
But the Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab ruled out any further Christmas curbs this morning as he hailed the vaccination programme as Britain’s way out of the Omicron crisis.
He told the Today programme: ‘We’re doing everything that can be done to tackle the risk that we face, and we’re doing it in the proportionate way that doesn’t create other risks and other challenges.’
Pressed on why the Government is not implementing Plan B, he said: ‘We don’t think Plan B is required. Why? Because of the success of the vaccine programme. We’ve got 118 million doses dispensed.’
Dr Barrett, director of the Covid-19 genomics initiative at the Wellcome Institute, said that there were still many unknowns about Omicron that could determine whether more curbs are needed.
He told the Today programme: ‘The really critical question, of course, is how many of those cases of which there will likely be a large number will lead to severe disease?
‘And a number of people including Dr Fauci (chief medical adviser to US president), as you mentioned, have hypothesised that this variant may be more mild or less likely to cause severe disease than previous variants of the virus.
‘I think what we have seen so far in South Africa, for example, is possibly consistent with that, but it’s really much too soon to say, and the reason for that is that this variant seems to be able to infect individuals who either have been vaccinated or previously have been infected.
‘And we know that second infections or breakthrough infections of vaccinated individuals tend to be more mild. So the fact that so far we have seen not very many severe cases of Omicron, maybe because it is infecting these individuals with some amount of immunity and that’s good news that they aren’t having tonnes of severe disease, but I think it is too soon to assume that fundamentally Omicron is more mild than say Delta.’
Doctors in South Africa have insisted that most patients suffer only mild illness, with the US’ top Covid expert Dr Anthony Fauci claiming yesterday it ‘doesn’t look like there’s a great degree of severity to it’.
But British scientists, including the Government’s own, have warned against the narrative that it is a weaker strain, warning that it could put significant pressure on the NHS by virtue of the fact it can infect more people.
One mathematical modeller predicted there could be up to 3,000 hospital admissions per day in the UK in January if Omicron takes off domestically — compared to the 4,000 per day at the peak last year.
Dr Barrett reiterated that even if the strain is milder, if it is extremely infectious it could put significant pressure on the NHS.
‘The potential problem is that even if that’s a very small fraction, a small fraction of a really big number can still cause problems,’ he said.
‘It kind of has a set of mutations in its genome, some of which we’ve seen before, and others of which we’ve only predicted, to make it bind very tightly to human cells to latch on and infect them.
‘So that probably helps it transmit and it also has mutations in many of the positions which are known to be the places where antibodies that we make from vaccines for example, latch on to the virus.
‘And so because those have been changed, it’s highly likely that this virus will be less well neutralised by vaccines.
‘Again, we’ll see that with sort of laboratory data in a few weeks, but the speed at which it is moving through both vaccinated countries and countries with a lot of previous infection like South Africa, are strongly implicating that it can indeed evade some amount of immunity.’
He added: ‘I think we can now say that this variant is spreading faster in the UK than the Delta variant at the same time, and that’s something that I think was unclear until very recently. I am pretty confident that it’s going to take over (Delta) probably in a matter of weeks.’
It came as former prime minister Theresa May slammed the Government over its response to Omicron as she accused ministers of putting businesses at risk by ‘stopping and starting sectors of our economy’.
In the Commons last night, Mrs May said Omicron appeared to lead to less serious illness than other variants and the Government should be ‘learning to live with Covid’.
She added that an annual vaccine was the solution rather than ‘stopping and starting’ the economy which leads to ‘businesses going under and jobs being lost’.