Sajid Javid, the health secretary, pulled out of Wednesday morning’s broadcast interviews after a video emerged showing No 10 aides laughing about a Christmas party during Covid restrictions, as the government faced a furious Tory and public backlash against their behaviour.
No ministers were available to be interviewed on the BBC, Sky, ITV and other outlets, despite Javid having been due to appear for the one-year anniversary of the vaccination campaign.
Conservative MPs expressed anger about the situation that No 10 had got into by holding a party, denying one had taken place, and then maintaining that denial despite the video obtained by ITV.
Sir Roger Gale, a longstanding backbench Tory MP, told the BBC that Johnson must explain what happened properly at prime minister’s questions later on Wednesday and warned him that “to mislead the House of Commons deliberately would be a resignation matter”.
He also rejected the idea that Johnson’s chief of staff should be sacked over the affair, saying “the buck stops at the top”.
Gale told Sky News that the party was a “Barnard Castle moment” and the government cannot say one thing and do another.
His comments refer to the incident in which the prime minister’s then aide Dominic Cummings explained he had driven to a beauty spot, Barnard Castle, during lockdown to test his eyesight, despite stay-at-home orders in place to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Charles Walker, the vice-chair of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, also told broadcasters that the incident reminded him of the expenses scandal and said it had left the government without the authority to impose restrictions in future, saying they would have to be “advisory” only.
Johnson and his aides have repeatedly denied that the event, reportedly held for staff at No 10 in December last year, broke Covid rules or took place at all.
However, in the leaked video of a mock televised press briefing, an adviser to Johnson is seen joking with Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s then press secretary, about “a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night”.
The footage, obtained by ITV, was shot on 22 December 2020. The Friday before was 18 December, the date on which multiple sources have said there was a staff party inside No 10, which would have contravened strict Covid regulations in place at the time.
It shows Stratton, the prime ministerial adviser Ed Oldfield and other staff making a series of jokes about a party, including references to “cheese and wine”, the lack of social distancing and making the excuse it was a business meeting.
Quizzed in the leaked footage, Stratton laughingly says: “This is recorded … This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”
The emergence of the video was called a “bullet to the chest” of families who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. Dr Saleyha Ahsan, from the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, told BBC Breakfast the saga was “an example of how the government have run this from the start: one rule for them and the rest of us have to adhere to different rules.”
Ahsan, who said she had been working in north Wales at the time of the mock press conference, said: “Numerous people around the country couldn’t spend those precious last few days, hours, minutes with loved ones. It was heartbreaking. In 14 years in the NHS I’ve never seen anything like it.
“And this latest revelation is just a bullet to the chest, it really is. It just demonstrates the lack of regard for the rest of us.”
The Metropolitan police have said they are considering the footage after two Labour MPs made complaints about the party and another gathering in November when London was in lockdown.
Johnson’s spokesperson on Tuesday denied that any event at Downing Street took place. Asked about the video, Downing Street insisted it had not changed its view, saying: “There was no Christmas party. Covid rules have been followed at all times.”
Separately, the Department for Education confirmed a report that some staff and the then education secretary, Gavin Williamson, held an office party on 10 December last year, while London was in tier 2, the second-highest level of Covid restrictions.
The Mirror said Williamson gave a speech while up to two dozen staff gathered in a cafe area drinking wine. A DfE spokesperson said that on that date “a gathering” took place of officials already present at the office “to thank those staff for their efforts during the pandemic”.
The spokesperson added: “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.”