LONDON — Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson is struggling to defend his leadership as new reports that he and his staff were throwing parties during the Covid lockdown sparked a mounting storm of criticism from lawmakers, the media and loved ones across the country.
Johnson apologized in the House of Commons on Wednesday for attending a “bring your own boze” party in the garden of his Downing Street home and office in May 2020, confirming reports that have led to increased calls for his resignation.
But his apology and explanation that he thought the gathering was a work event was met with incredulous jeers from opposition lawmakers.
Members of Johnson’s own Conservative Party were also openly critical, and some of Britain’s most partisan newspapers also turned against him.
“I’ve learned enough to know that there are things that we just haven’t done right and I have to take responsibility,” Johnson, 57, said during a much-anticipated lunchtime showdown with lawmakers in Parliament. “In hindsight,” he added, “I should have sent everyone back in.”
Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labor Party, said Johnson was “a man without shame” and called for his resignation.
The Prime Minister struggled to defend his job after Britain’s ITV News reported that Johnson’s most senior aide sent out an email invitation to staff on May 20, 2020, suggesting “the best of the make nice weather”.
“Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!” the aide reportedly added. NBC News has not independently obtained or confirmed the authenticity of the email.
At the time, Johnson’s government had imposed a strict lockdown to combat the coronavirus, meaning people were only allowed to meet one other person from outside their household while schools, pubs and non-essential shops were closed.
The rules were legally enforced and the Metropolitan Police said Monday they were in contact with the government about the allegations.
Johnson has hired a senior official, Sue Gray, to investigate allegations involving not just that party but other suspected gatherings of government officials while the country was in lockdown.
A Downing Street spokesman said on Tuesday that “the ongoing investigation will look into these issues and it would not be appropriate to comment further while this work is ongoing.”
As of May 2020, nearly 35,000 people have died in the UK, including 328 on the day of the bring your own booze party. Many died in nursing homes, where loved ones were not allowed to have visitors and where staff struggled with a lack of testing and personal protective equipment, even at funerals there were strict attendance restrictions.
“To see that Mr. Johnson and his friends seem to have picked the occasion for a party is… upsetting, I would say, but it goes beyond that,” said Dr. Hannah Barham-Brown, a trainee GP from Yorkshire, northern England at the time of the alleged party, was working in two care homes.
Barham-Brown, who is also vice leader of the Women’s Equality Party, said she would call several families every day to let them know their relative has Covid or has died – possibly as a result of contracting the disease.
“And then I drove to my little cottage in the middle of rural Yorkshire, where I live alone, miles from my family, and to be honest I just cried my eyes out most nights,” she told NBC News.
“We had an enclosed garden next to the nursing home, we could have used it but we didn’t because it was illegal. To see the people who made those rules flout them in such a blatant way is…I can’t imagine what was going through their minds,” she said.
Johnson won a landslide victory in the 2019 UK general election, largely due to his simple promise to “Get Brexit Done”.
But public support could dwindle when painful testimonies like Barham-Brown’s are on news programs and front pages across the country.
A quick poll by Savanta ComRes on Tuesday found that 66 percent of respondents now thought Johnson should resign, up 12 percentage points from a poll conducted in December.