Watch the full exchange between Ed Oldfield and Allegra Stratton in the mock televised press briefing
The government is in turmoil this morning with Boris Johnson under massive pressure to explain a video, released by ITV News, showing his aides joking about attending a lockdown-breaking Christmas party.
The prime minister will face intense scrutiny at PMQs over the leaked recording which shows senior Downing Street staff laughing about throwing a festive bash in Number 10 four days after the event is alleged to have taken place last December.
Public reaction has been furious, while a number of MPs including the SNP leader have called for his resignation and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has urged the prime minister to "come clean and apologise".
For a week Mr Johnson and his ministers have attempted to bat away accusations of rule breaking in Number 10 last Christmas, but claims that Covid rules were always followed in Downing Street will now be harder to maintain.
In the video staff can be heard making references to “cheese and wine”, while Boris Johnson’s then spokesperson Allegra Stratton remarked there was “definitely no social distancing.”
The alleged party is said to have taken place on December 18 while millions of people in the UK were being forced to avoid socialising because of coronavirus lockdowns.
At the time London was in Tier 3 restrictions, under which the law clearly stated: “No person may participate in a gathering in the Tier 3 area which consists of two or more people, and takes place in any indoor space.”
Watch PMQs live here:
The fallout from the video has begun to emerge - in a rare move, Downing Street has failed to provide a minister to do its normal morning round of interviews with major broadcasters, such as BBC Breakfast and ITV's Good Morning Britain.
BBC Radio 4 said health secretary Sajid Javid pulled out of an interview scheduled for Wednesday morning "just a few minutes after that video emerged", while vaccines minister Maggie Throup is understood to have pulled out of a planned round of regional television interviews.
Labour leader Sir Keir said the leaked video indicates that the prime minister has “not been straight” about claims of a festive get-together, with some reports claiming it featured alcohol and “secret Santa” present-giving.
Tory peer Baroness Warsi went further, tweeting that she believes everyone at the party "must resign NOW no ifs no buts".
She added: "The rule of law is a fundamental value , the glue that hold us together as a nation. Once that is trashed by those in power the very essence of our democracy is at stake."
Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale declaring 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.
ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand reports on how the leaked footage adds fresh weight to accusations of rule breaking levelled at Downing Street
“No 10 clearly has some serious questions to answer. Fast,” tweeted the North Thanet MP.
Another Tory backbencher, Anne Marie Morris, said: "It's not on and, at the very least, they should admit their blatant error and apologise for breaking the rules they imposed on society."
In the footage, the prime minister’s then press secretary Allegra Stratton and adviser Ed Oldfield, along with other aides, were filmed joking about a “fictional” Downing Street party in December 2020.
Ms Stratton is seen answering questions at a mock press conference on December 22 about a party the previous Friday – the date of the alleged gathering, which is said to have been attended by dozens of colleagues while social mixing indoors was banned in London under Tier 3 restrictions.
Mr Oldfield can be heard asking Ms Stratton: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?”
Ms Stratton replied “I went home” before appearing to consider what the correct answer should be.
During the rehearsal, filmed as part of a subsequently-abandoned plan for Ms Stratton to lead televised press briefings, one aide is heard saying: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.”
“Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting,” Ms Stratton replied, to laughter in the room.
Ms Stratton then noted “this is recorded”, adding: “This fictional party was a business meeting … and it was not socially distanced.”
The Metropolitan Police confirmed officers are reviewing the leaked video in relation to “alleged breaches” of coronavirus regulations.
Mr Johnson also faces fierce questions from the public, many of whom sacrificed their freedoms last December in order to comply with the government's Covid rules.
Louise Backway, whose father died of prostrate cancer after being unable to spend his last Christmas with his children and grandchildren, told ITV News she and her family are "furious" after watching the video.
'I sacrificed the last time that my dad could see his grandchildren,' says Louisa Backway, whose father died of prostate cancer earlier this year
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.
The other was said to be a staff party in December where party games were played, food and drinks were served, and revelries went on past midnight.
At the time, the Tier 3 rules explicitly banned work Christmas lunches and parties where it is “a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for the Prime Minister to “come clean and apologise” over the alleged party.
“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,” he said.
“They had a right to expect that the government was doing the same. To lie and to laugh about those lies is shameful.”
'It's not just a political crisis but arguably a public health crisis': Paul Brand comments on the fallout from the footage on ITV's Good Morning Britain
Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy echoed Sir Keir's comments saying, "it really is quite unacceptable that is seen as something that is humorous...one rule for the PM and another for British public."
It comes as the Department for Education (DfE) admitted it held a social gathering of staff in the lead-up to Christmas in contravention to coronavirus social-distancing rules.
The Mirror reported that former education secretary Gavin Williamson threw a party and delivered a short speech at the event, which took place on December 10 while London was in Tier 2, which banned social mixing between households.
A DfE spokeswoman said: “While this was work-related, looking back we accept it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time.”
The controversy surrounding alleged government behaviour during the lockdown comes as the coronavirus vaccine booster booking system opened on Wednesday to people aged 40 and over as ministers look to combat Omicron’s sweep across the UK with further jabs.
Official figures showed 101 additional cases of the Omicron variant have been reported across the UK – including the first cases detected in Northern Ireland – with the total now reaching 437.