U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson fighting to save leadership over Covid party scandal

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LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is fighting to defend his leadership as fresh reports he and his staff held parties during Covid lockdown sparked a growing storm of criticism from lawmakers, the media and bereaved families across the country.

Johnson apologized in the House of Commons on Wednesday for attending a “bring your own booze” party in the garden of his Downing Street residence and office in May 2020, confirming reports that have led to intensifying calls for him to resign.

But his apology and explanation that he thought the gathering was a work event were met with incredulous jeers from opposition lawmakers.

Members of Johnson’s own Conservative Party have also been openly critical, with some of Britain’s highly partisan newspapers turning on him too.

“I have learned enough to know there were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility,” said Johnson, 57, during a highly-anticipated lunchtime showdown with lawmakers in Parliament. “With hindsight,” he added, “I should have sent everyone back inside.”

Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Johnson was “a man without shame” and called on him to quit.

The prime minister was fighting to defend his job after a report from British broadcaster ITV News that Johnson’s most senior aide sent an email invitation to staff on May 20, 2020 suggesting they “make the most of the lovely weather.”

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“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 that time Johnson’s government had imposed a strict lockdown to combat the coronavirus that meant 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 enforced by law and the Metropolitan Police said Monday it was in contact with the government over the allegations.

Johnson has ordered a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, to investigate allegations surrounding not only this party but other alleged gatherings of government officials while the country was under lockdown. 

A Downing Street spokesperson said Tuesday that “the ongoing investigation will be looking at these questions and it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment further while that work is ongoing.”

Boris Johnson led claps for Britain’s health workers in May 2020, but the scandal has led to criticism he cannot leader the country through the pandemic.Tolga Akmen / AFP via Getty Images

By May 2020 nearly 35,000 people had died in the U.K., including 328 on the day of the “bring your own booze” party. Many died in nursing homes, where loved ones were not permitted to visit and where staff struggled with a lack of tests and personal protective equipment. Even funerals had strict attendance limits.

“To see that Mr. Johnson and his friends seem to have chosen this occasion for a party is … I would say galling but it’s beyond that,” said Dr. Hannah Barham-Brown, a trainee GP based in Yorkshire, northern England, who at the time of the alleged party was working across two nursing homes.

Barham-Brown, who is also deputy leader of the Women’s Equality Party, said she would call multiple families daily to tell them either that their relative had Covid, or had died — possibly as a result of contracting the disease.

“And then I would drive to my small cottage in the middle of rural Yorkshire where I live by myself, miles away from my family, and just bawl my eyes out most nights to be honest,” she told NBC News.

“We had an enclosed garden attached to the care home, we could have used it but we didn’t because it was illegal. To see the people who made those rules disobey them in such a flagrant way is … I cannot imagine what went through their minds,” she said.

Johnson won a landslide victory in the U.K. general election of 2019, which was largely attributed to his simple promise to “Get Brexit Done.”

But the public’s support could be waning, with painful testimonies like that of Barham-Brown featuring on news broadcasts and front pages across the country.

A snap poll by Savanta ComRes on Tuesday showed 66 percent of respondents now thought Johnson should resign, up 12 percentage points from a poll taken in December.

Reuters contributed.

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