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Wednesday briefing: PM’s Christmas party crisis intensifies

·11 min read

Top story: ‘This is recorded …’

Hello, Warren Murray offering you a little help to get up to speed.

Boris Johnson is facing accusations of lying after senior No 10 officials were filmed joking about a lockdown Christmas party that Downing Street insists did not take place. 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 Downing Street, which would have contravened strict Covid regulations in place at the time. In the leaked video of a mock televised press briefing, Johnson adviser Ed Oldfield is seen joking with Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s then press secretary, about “a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night”. Amid the back and forth, Stratton says laughingly: “This is recorded … This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.” Stratton, who has since become the spokesperson for Cop26, and Oldfield, who remains at Downing Street, have been contacted for comment.

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. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said Johnson had not been truthful: “To lie and to laugh about those lies is shameful. The prime minister now needs to come clean and apologise.”

Becky Kummer, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said: “There are simply no words to describe how upsetting and shameful it is then to hear Boris Johnson’s team laughing about breaking the rules they had made, whilst others followed them and could only say goodbye to their loved ones through a screen. It’s the behaviour of people who think they’re above us.” 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 2020. A DfE spokesperson said it was “a gathering” of officials already present “to thank those staff for their efforts during the pandemic … 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.”

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‘Stealth Omicron’ – Scientists say they have identified a “stealth” version of Omicron that cannot be distinguished from other variants using the PCR tests that public health officials use around the world. It means we now have the standard Omicron, known as BA.1, and this “stealth” variant, known as BA.2. The first can be identified because of a so-called S-gene deletion – but the second does not have that, so while it can still be detected as Covid, it cannot be singled out as Omicron. Separately the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is considering legal action against Immensa, a private health company whose laboratory an NHS investigation in October found gave at least 43,000 people potentially false negative Covid-19 test results. Immensa and its sister company Dante Labs were contacted for comment. And the NHS is to hire an extra 52,000 vaccinators and volunteers to “ramp up” its booster drive, one year after the national vaccination programme became the first in the world to administer a Covid-19 jab.

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Ashes to ashes – The Ashes series got off to the worst possible start for England when their opening batsman, Rory Burns, was bowled on the first ball of the first Test – just the second time in Ashes history a wicket had fallen on the opening delivery. Australian fast bowler Mitchell Starc got Burns around his legs in Brisbane overnight to spark joyous scenes around the famous Gabba ground. It didn’t get much better for the tourists as the big wickets of Joe Root and Ben Stokes followed soon after and, despite some brief resistance from Haseeb Hameed, Ollie Pope and Jos Buttler they were bowled out for 147, with new Australian captain Pat Cummins leading the way with five wickets. Rain stopped play before Australia’s batters were able to take to the field, but you can follow any further developments with our liveblog.

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Midweek catch-up

> Indonesia’s president has visited areas devastated by the eruption of Mt Semeru that killed at least 34 people and left thousands homeless. Joko Widodo vowed that communities would be quickly rebuilt.

> A former British local councillor accused of killing his wife by ploughing into her with his car will go on trial in France on Wednesday.

Stephanie and David Turtle
Stephanie and David Turtle. Photograph: Facebook

David Turtle is alleged to have accelerated his Mercedes at his wife, Stephanie, outside their home in south-west France, crushing her under the vehicle after a row. Turtle has denied the accusations, saying her death was a tragic accident.

> Randstad, the Dutch multinational delivering the government’s National Tutoring Programme (NTP), is under mounting pressure after claims that pupil enrolment for subsidised tuition is more than 90% below target. Randstad says it is working hard to deliver the programme.

> Australian officials will not attend the Beijing Winter Olympics as they join the United States in a diplomatic boycott of next year’s Games.

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Deadlock remains over Ukraine – Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin have held their virtual summit but made little apparent headway about the crisis over Ukraine. The Kremlin said Putin accused Nato of “dangerous attempts to develop Ukrainian territory and increase its potential along our borders”. He demanded guarantees that Nato would not expand its territory toward Russia or place missile systems in bordering countries. The US says it is Ukraine’s right to decide its own security arrangements, but officials said Biden offered broader strategic talks between the Nato allies and Russia if the threat of Russian invasion receded. Biden spoke afterwards to the leaders of the UK, Germany, France and Italy by conference call. The Putin administration wants Kyiv to abide by the 2015 Minsk agreement, which stipulates that Ukraine reform its constitution and open direct talks with Russian-backed separatists, both of which are extremely unpopular demands in Kyiv.

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Olaf Scholz of the party – A new German chancellor is to be sworn in by the Bundestag today, opening a new chapter as the Merkel era comes to an end. Olaf Scholz, the outgoing deputy chancellor and finance minister, will lead a government composed of his Social Democrat party, the business-friendly Free Democrats and the Greens, a coalition of parties never tried before at the federal level in Germany.

Olaf Scholz will be sworn in as German chancellor today
Olaf Scholz will be sworn in as German chancellor today. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

The alliance brings to a close 16 years of rule by Angela Merkel, who chose not to run again. During her turbulent time in office, spanning eurozone crises, more than a million refugee arrivals and Brexit, there have been four French presidents, five British prime ministers and eight Italian premiers. The new chancellor, an architect of the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund, said his first trip outside Germany would be to Paris and Brussels, as he seeks to ensure that “Europe is secure and sovereign”.

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Ruined the place – The wreckage of a 1970s shopping centre will form the centrepiece of a £500m Nottingham development that will include a park and leisure space. The Frame is a reimagined wreck of the former Broadmarsh shopping mall, which is envisioned swathed in greenery, and hosting markets, leisure facilities such as a climbing wall and vast trampoline or events space for boxing or music.

It is the design of Thomas Heatherwick, creator of the 2012 Olympic cauldron, the new Routemaster bus, and the Coal Drops Yard shopping redevelopment in London’s King’s Cross. About half of the Broadmarsh centre was demolished in a redevelopment before its owner went bust. The lease was taken on by Nottingham city council. Moribund shopping centres around the country might be similarly redeveloped as online shopping and out-of-town retail parks take their place.

Today in Focus podcast: Little Arthur and the social work crisis

The abuse and killing of a six-year-old in the West Midlands has put a renewed focus on the challenges facing social workers, Patrick Butler reports.

Lunchtime read: Covid vaccines, a short history

It has been a year since the UK became the first western country to license a vaccine against Covid and since then the world has embarked on a battle against the virus. Here is a history of the vaccination development.

Margaret Keenan, 90, was the first patient in the United Kingdom to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine
Margaret Keenan, 90, was the first patient in the United Kingdom to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine. Photograph: Jacob King/PA

Sport

Liverpool came from behind to storm into the knockout stages of the Champions League and dump Milan out of all European competition with a 2-1 win at the San Siro. A half-interested Manchester City lost their dead rubber with RB Leipzig 2-1 as Kyle Walker managed to get sent off and will now be suspended for the last 16. Atlético Madrid progressed as they won 3-1 at Porto in a tense and ill-tempered game in which both sides had men sent off. Magnus Carlsen has all but retained his world chess title after defeating Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi for the third time in four games in the ninth encounter of their showdown in Dubai. Three weighing-room valets who gave evidence last week to the disciplinary hearing in which Robbie Dunne is accused of bullying and harassing his fellow rider Bryony Frost refused to work for Frost when she took two rides at Fontwell Park on Tuesday.

Tracey Crouch is braced for the Premier League to “push back very, very hard” against her recommendation that English football should be subject to independent regulation. The Champions Cup has been rocked by the coronavirus pandemic before the opening round of fixtures this weekend with Scarlets forfeiting their match and Cardiff preparing to field a “misfit” team including semi-professionals. Ryder Cup-winning golfer Thorbjørn Olesen has said he was “embarrassed and felt horrible” after being accused of drunkenly groping a woman on a flight. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said that it respects the United States’ decision to diplomatically boycott the forthcoming Beijing Winter Olympics. And Tennis Australia has hit back at suggestions it is seeking to exploit a “loophole” in border entry rules so unvaccinated players can compete in the upcoming Australian Open, amid speculation about Novak Djokovic’s ability to enter the country.

Business

The “race for space” that characterised the booming property market during the pandemic could be starting to slow, according to Halifax, with the focus moving from bigger houses in the country to city flats. Property also remains a big story in China where Kaisa looks like the latest developer to fall foul of the government’s crackdown on reckless borrowing. Its shares were suspended in Hong Kong today after failing to stump up $400m in bond repayments and looks like following Evergrande into default. FTSE100 futures are up 0.4% and the pound is on $1.325 and €1.173.

The papers

Imagine being Allegra Stratton today, finding yourself on the front page above the headline “A sick joke”, as the Daily Mail puts it. The Metro says “No. 10 party clowns”. Our Guardian headline is less blunt, more explanatory: “PM accused of lying after No 10 team filmed joking about party”. The second story on the Guardian’s front page is “Letter links Johnson to airlift of animals”. The letter suggests Boris Johnson and the Foreign Office may have covered up the prime minister’s involvement in airlifting more than 150 dogs and cats from Afghanistan, a senior MP has said. It comes after a Foreign Office whistleblower’s evidence triggered claims that animals were prioritised over people. Boris Johnson has called such claims as “complete nonsense”.

The Mirror is most concerned with the Gavin Williamson gathering – “Another top Tory broke Covid part rules”, it says – Stratton also appears, as she does as well on the front of the Express in a puff box pointing to the story inside. The splash in the Express, though, is “We need a shot in the arm now!” encouraging everyone to get their boosters.

The Times leads with “Cabinet rift over plan for vaccine passports” while the Telegraph’s top story is “Plan for Christmas work from home order”. The i has “2021: it’s beginning to look a lot like last Christmas” as work from home comes back into the realm of Omicron possibilities. And prime position in the Financial Times goes to “US urges Berlin to block Russian gas line in event of Ukraine strike”.

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• In yesterday’s briefing, the section on the papers misspelled “Grenfell” as “Greenfell”.

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