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UK inquiry to look into 2 more alleged government gatherings

·3 min read

LONDON (AP) — The British government confirmed Thursday that an inquiry into an alleged lockdown-breaching Christmas party at the offices of Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson nearly a year ago will also look at two prior gatherings involving government officials.

In a statement to lawmakers, Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis laid out the terms of reference for the inquiry Johnson ordered Wednesday following a week of allegations that officials had flouted coronavirus rules that they imposed on everyone else.

The primary charge relates to a Dec. 18, 2020, event at the prime minister's 10 Downing St. offices, where officials are said to have enjoyed wine, food, games and a festive gift exchange at a time when pandemic regulations banned most social gatherings.

A leaked video showed senior staff members joking about the alleged party, prompting the resignation of one of Johnson's advisers on Wednesday and piling pressure on the prime minister, who had for days insisted no rules were broken.

Ellis said the investigation, which will be led by the U.K.'s top civil servant, Simon Case, will also look into a gathering allegedly held at Downing Street on Nov. 27, 2020, and another at the Department for Education on Dec. 10.

“The primary purpose of the Cabinet secretary’s investigation will be to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose, and with reference to adherence to the guidance in place at the time," Ellis said.

“If required, the investigation will establish whether individual disciplinary action is warranted," he added.

Ellis said the findings may be referred to the police.

There are concerns that the apparent flouting of rules at the heart of government will undermine public adherence to restrictions set to take effect in coming days to curb the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

On Wednesday, Johnson urged people in England to again work from home when possible and to wear face masks in more indoor settings. He also backed the introduction of vaccine passes for crowded venues such as nightclubs and large gatherings including big sports events.

The Christmas party claims are the latest in a string of allegations of rule-breaking and ethics violations by Johnson and government officials. On Thursday the Conservative Party was fined 17,800 pounds ($23,500) by Britain’s electoral watchdog for failing to keep a proper record of money from a donor that was used to refurbish Johnson’s official residence.

Johnson has denied knowing the source of money for the Downing Street renovations, which cost more than 100,000 pounds ($132,000), and a separate probe cleared him of serious wrongdoing. But the Electoral Commission found WhatsApp messages suggesting Johnson was aware the money came from a wealthy Conservative donor.

The commission said the money had been variously described by the party as a donation, the repayment of a loan and a “gift to the nation.”

“Our investigation into the Conservative Party found that the laws around the reporting and recording of donations were not followed,” said Electoral Commission director of regulation Louise Edwards.

Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said Johnson has to answer questions over whether he misled a separate investigation into the donation.

“Boris Johnson has taken the British public for fools," she said. "He’s not only broken the law but made a mockery of the standards we expect from our prime ministers.”

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Jill Lawless contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

Pan Pylas, The Associated Press

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