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U.K.'s Boris Johnson on blast for holding a Christmas party during lockdown in 2020

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under fire from his political opposition, the general public and even his own lawmakers, thanks to a Christmas party. The alleged event is said to have taken place at Johnson's office at 10 Downing Street last Christmas season, at a time when Britain was under lockdown and such gatherings were forbidden. To learn more, we're joined by reporter Willem Marx from London. Welcome back.

WILLEM MARX: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Let's begin with why people are so upset.

MARX: Well, this all cropped up following a report in a British newspaper, The Daily Mirror, which multiple other U.K. media outlets have subsequently expanded upon, that during the period leading up to Christmas last year, several dozen people attended a party inside Downing Street, the residence of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Then just this week, one of the government's top political spokespeople, very high-profile figure, resigned in tears after a leaked video showed her laughing during a rehearsed press conference in which she was being asked questions about a rumored Christmas party inside the heart of government.

So in response to these reports, there's been this wave of public anger in some quarters and anguish in others because during that same time period, as in many parts of the world, here in the U.K., it was a fraught time. We had a rising third wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. And particularly in large English cities like London, authorities responded to this by reintroducing tight restrictions on social gatherings, and that meant that families in particular were prevented from spending the holiday season together. Friends couldn't socialize at traditional Christmas parties, and, worst of all, there were these heartbreaking instances where elderly relatives were dying alone without their loved ones by their side.

CORNISH: How has Johnson responded to this?

MARX: Well, initially, Boris Johnson and a significant number of his cabinet ministers said publicly there was no party and that all relevant rules on social restrictions were followed in Downing Street during that period. But for more than a week now, journalists at multiple outlets continue reporting details about this particular gathering - how there were drinks, food, even a Secret Santa gift exchange, according to some accounts. And after that leaked video was broadcast, Johnson apologized for it.

But then, under sustained pressure, he's now authorized the country's top civil servant to investigate what happened on that night. And as of this morning, the government said that inquiry has now widened to include at least one other event gathering inside Downing Street and a third social event in a separate government ministry. There have been reports, though, I should say, of more than half a dozen such social gatherings across government buildings during that same period.

CORNISH: Johnson's government has actually introduced new COVID regulations - right? - recently. So what's the reaction been like to the new rules, especially in light of this context?

MARX: Well, one of the comments you hear repeatedly from behavioral experts is that when public trust in government is reduced or undermined by incidents like this, people's adherence to rules falls. And new rules that have been introduced this week have followed on from the deputy prime minister here saying there was no need for new restrictions to combat this omicron variant and then Wednesday, yesterday, the prime minister announcing that there were new rules being put in place. Some lawmakers, including inside his own party, have seen this as a bit of a distraction.

Johnson has been under a lot of criticism, and they think potentially this is him trying to draw attention away from these difficulties that he's facing. It's not clear he's going to face any significant pressure to step down, but at least for now, his position is looking a lot less secure than it was a few months ago.

CORNISH: That's reporter Willem Marx in London. Thanks for your reporting.

MARX: Thanks, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MORCHEEBA'S "POST HUMOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.