Boris Johnson is set to announce fresh restrictions in England to curb the spread of the Omicron variant, as he faced new questions over parties held in Downing Street last Christmas.
Three senior Whitehall officials told the Financial Times that the government had decided to implement the so-called ‘Plan B’ of further restrictions, including vaccine passports for large venues and an order to work from home.
Johnson’s decision to act reflects growing concern at the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, but government officials also said he wanted to regain the initiative after days of disastrous coverage over a Downing Street Christmas party last year.
One said the move to Plan B — much earlier than expected — was a “dead cat” move by Johnson to distract attention from the row over a leaked video of a mock Downing Street press conference showing staff laughing about the party, which breached Covid rules.
Ministers on the Covid operations committee met on Wednesday to decide on the exact measures. One government insider suggested the work from home order could be implemented as soon as tonight. Downing Street did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The new restrictions could be announced at a press conference as early as Wednesday with regulations laid before parliament on Thursday, according to government insiders.
The decision comes as Johnson faced further pressure after his close aides were caught on video laughing about a Downing Street Christmas party — or “business meeting” — at a mock press conference.
“It looks very much like a dead cat,” one said, a reference to a media strategy to distract from bad news.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is set to push Johnson to explain the footage during prime minister’s questions as he grapples with growing condemnation from his own backbenchers for the apparent breach of the rules.
Multiple sources have said that a party took place at No 10 on December 18 last year, when parties were illegal under strict coronavirus restrictions. Johnson has insisted that no such party happened.
UK health secretary Sajid Javid pulled out of a number of national broadcast interviews on Wednesday morning after the video, which was published by ITV News, emerged, as No 10 grapples with how to respond.
Javid had been due to discuss the UK’s vaccination efforts on the BBC and Sky News, as well as a number of radio stations, to mark a year since the first Covid-19 jab was administered.
Former education secretary Gavin Williamson was also reported to have held a Christmas party in his department last December. A spokeswoman for the education department confirmed a “gathering” had taken place and apologised.
“Drinks and snacks were brought by those attending and no outside guests or supporting staff were invited or present,” she 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 reports of rule-breaking by the most senior figures in government prompted fears that the imposition of further coronavirus measures could be undermined.
Neil Ferguson, one of the country’s leading coronavirus experts, warned on Wednesday morning that if no further measures were introduced, the peak of the current wave of infection would come in January. He said that cases of the Omicron variant, which he said were doubling “at least every three days”, could overtake the Delta variant by Christmas.
The internal video published by ITV News was from a mock Downing Street press conference on December 22 last year, when Allegra Stratton, then Johnson’s press secretary, was asked if any Christmas parties were held.
“I went home,” she laughed, before telling her colleagues to “hold on”. Stratton asked aides present: “What’s the answer?” One suggested: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine”.
“This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced,” she joked.
One Downing Street official said of the video: “It’s pretty disastrous, the government and PM denying it and then this footage leaks out saying otherwise.”
The Metropolitan Police said it was reviewing the footage. “It is our policy not to routinely investigate retrospective breaches of the Covid-19 regulations, however the footage will form part of our considerations,” it said in a statement.