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Covid live: former aide of Boris Johnson apologises for ‘anger and hurt’ caused by party

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James Slack issues apology for ‘anger and hurt’ caused by Downing Street party ahead of Duke’s funeral

The Prime Minister’s former director of communications has apologised for the “anger and hurt” caused by a Downing Street party which it is claimed was held as his leaving do last year, during a period of Covid restrictions. The gathering, which the Telegraph has reported featured dancing, thirty people, and the fetching of a suitcase of wine from a Co-op shop on the Strand, is alleged to have taken place the night before the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh.

James Slack, who was appointed deputy editor-in-chief of the Sun newspaper last year, said:

I wish to apologise unreservedly for the anger and hurt caused. This event should not have happened at the time that it did. I am deeply sorry, and take full responsibility.

PA Media report he then said he could not comment further as the matter had been referred to Sue Gray’s investigation.

By the way, if you are looking for the latest updates on the Novak Djokovic story, my colleagues on our sport desk have a live blog up and running covering that. I’ll obviously note any major developments in the story here as well.

PA Media are carry a few reaction quotes to the reports that there were parties at Downing Street the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral last year. Boris Johnson’s former director of communications, James Slack, who is now deputy editor of the Sun, has issued an apology for the “anger and hurt” caused.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey has said: “The Queen sitting alone, mourning the loss of her husband, was the defining image of lockdown. Not because she is the Queen, but because she was just another person, mourning alone like too many others. Whilst she mourned, Number 10 partied. Johnson must go.”

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner wrote on Twitter: “The Queen sat alone in mourning like so many did at the time with personal trauma sacrifice to keep to the rules in the national interest. I have no words for the culture behaviours at Number 10 and the buck stops with the PM.”

Fran Hall, from Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “If your neighbours had behaved like this, you’d have been disgusted. For the people running the country to do it and then lie about it, shows a complete disdain for the general public.

“We shared the same pain of grieving in isolation as the Queen did. And she must be just as sickened as we are at hearing this. Sadly, instead of doing the decent thing and resigning, we can expect the prime minister to continue shamefully lying to our faces. The Conservative MPs that are keeping him in power disgrace their country.”

Wales to announce two-week plan to ease Covid restrictions

The Welsh Government is to set out a two-week plan to ease coronavirus restrictions at 12.15pm today. First Minister Mark Drakeford will reveal his road map for returning to alert level 0, during a press conference in Cardiff.

Wales has been on alert level 2 since Boxing Day, which includes measures such as mask-wearing in all public venues, the two-metre rule and the rule of six in hospitality settings. Nightclubs have also been forced to shut.

The move to alert level 0 is expected to be phased, with restrictions on outdoor activities being removed first. This could mean Six Nations Rugby matches which are due to start next month can go ahead in the country.

PA Media note that pressure had been mounting from sports organisations and fans, with many fearing games would have to be held across the border in England.

Gaby Hinsliff has filed her latest column for us, and it is not going to make for happy reading in the Boris Johnson household. She writes:

Like a dog that could not be sorrier for chewing the sofa, it was a contrite prime minister who prostrated himself before parliament this week. Dogs are never truly sorry, of course. They have learned that if they whimper, hang their heads and look pathetic when caught, they can defuse their owners’ anger. But they don’t actually feel sorry, because dogs don’t think like that. They just want the shouting to stop.

In Boris Johnson’s case, the ever-so-humble act certainly doesn’t seem to have lasted long. When he toured the tearooms afterwards, taking the temperature of his party, he reportedly horrified some MPs by insisting that he hadn’t actually done anything wrong and was merely taking the rap for someone else: some other prime minister, presumably, who had stood in the middle of a crowd chugging wine on his lawn and now claimed not to have realised that was a party.

Read more here: Gaby Hinsliff – The sickness ailing the Conservatives runs deeper than Boris Johnson

Tens of thousands of devout Hindus, led by heads of monasteries and ash-smeared ascetics, took a holy dip into the frigid waters of the Ganges River in northern India on Friday despite rising Covid infections in the country.

Hindu pilgrims congregated at the Sangam, the confluence of three rivers — the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati — in Prayagraj city, 200 km (124 miles) northeast of Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh, to participate in the Magh Mela festival, one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism.

Hindu devotees arrive in numbers to take a holy dip on the occasion of the Makar Sankranti festival during the annual Hindu ‘Magh Mela’ festival at Sangam.
Hindu devotees arrive in numbers to take a holy dip on the occasion of the Makar Sankranti festival during the annual Hindu ‘Magh Mela’ festival at Sangam. Photograph: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

They bathed in the Ganges waters, a ritual Hindus believe will wash away their sins and free them from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Similar gatherings last year were criticised as being super-spreader events as the Delta variant took hold in the country.

Associated Press report that already, 77 policemen and 12 cleaning staff deployed for the event have tested positive for the virus.

“This is going to be a superspreader. The government should not allow a congregation of people in such a large number because religious congregations in the past two years were found responsible for spreading the deadly virus all across the country,” said Utkarsh Mishra, a lawyer who has filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court asking that the festival be canceled.

Indian monks take a holy dip as devotees gather at the Ganges River.
Indian monks take a holy dip as devotees gather at the Ganges River. Photograph: Piyal Adhikary/EPA

Mishra said only locals and heads of important Hindu monasteries should be allowed to take part in the ritual.

Fearing a rise in infections, authorities in neighbouring Uttarakhand state have already banned a similar gathering.

Emily Thornberry: Johnson should apologise to Queen and resign

The Labour MP Emily Thornberry is not taking any prisoners in her round of TV interviews this morning, and appears to have nearly dropped an F-bomb on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, saying: “If only he had told the f… truth in the first place.”

She also responded to the suggestion that Jacob Rees-Mogg had posited yesterday – that the Covid rules were too detailed and complex for people to follow – by saying that the government had not found them too complex to pass the laws.

In her earlier Sky News appearance, she raised the spectre of the awkwardness of the next meeting between the prime minister and the Queen, after the reports that his staff had a boozy party the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, saying:

We’re waiting for the prime minister to look into his heart and soul and decide whether or not he has a scrap of human decency in him. Because if he does, he will resign. How the hell can you possibly expect to go before Her Majesty again at a weekly audience and be able to look her in the eye and pretend that everything is alright, because everything is not all right. The one thing he should be saying to Her Majesty is “I am profoundly sorry, and I resign”. That’s what he should do.

Updated

Sir Roger Gale, the Conservative MP who has been dismissed by some Boris Johnson supporters as a serial dissenter, delivered a cracking line on Sky News this morning.

Sophie Morris (@itssophiemorris)

Sir Roger Gale tells Sky News: “I don’t think that the image of the Downing Street branch of the Majestic Wine warehouse is doing us any good at all.”

January 14, 2022

Updated

Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow attorney general, has been on Sky News. Here’s a flavour of what she had to say about the Downing Street parties story:

I think when I first heard it, it actually took quite a long time for me to just get over the emotion that I felt. Because, I thought about Her Majesty the next day, and the way in which she was leading the country, and behaving in such a thoroughly decent way in which she always does, I think, in many ways embodying the suffering that we have had as a country. The way in which she behaves in such a proper way, in a way which makes us all so proud.

And you think of that, and you compare it with what was going on in Downing Street. Where there had been a culture that had been set over the time of the pandemic, where the prime minister made it perfectly clear that he was perfectly alright about this. You know, and frankly, we would not have been seeing these parties, not just one party but two parties in one night, if they really thought that the prime minister didn’t approve, or wouldn’t have been all right about it.

But the point is that the culture is set by the prime minister. It is his responsibility. And so far the only thing that you have heard from Number 10 Downing Street is that their defence was “Oh, the prime minister wasn’t there.” So what. So what.

Eleni Courea is doing Politico’s London Playbook today, and she has this:

The prime minister is working from his Downing Street flat and limiting external contacts after a member of his immediate family tested positive for the coronavirus. His spokesman said yesterday that he was unlikely to be seen in public for the next week.

Particularly painful for the PM is the fact this latest bombshell story was broken by the Telegraph, one of Johnson’s strongest cheerleaders, which employed him for years as its star columnist. The story is also problematic for the Sun, where Slack now works as deputy editor.

Will things get tougher for Johnson? Tory MPs heading to their constituencies for the weekend are about to find out the extent of backlash they face from Tory members and the wider public. It would hardly be surprising if, on their return to the Commons on Monday, there is another trickle of no-confidence letters into backbench 1922 committee Chairman Graham Brady’s letterbox.

Away from Westminster for a moment, but still in the UK, Wales’ first minister, Mark Drakeford, has been on the BBC Today programme. PA Media quote him saying that his move to ease restrictions in Wales comes amid a falling number of cases:

Because the data and the science is saying to us – as the modelling we have in Wales predicted – we appear to have passed the peak of Omicron, and are coming down very rapidly on the other side, that gives us confidence that over the next two weeks we can gradually and carefully lift the level of protections we needed over the Christmas period, because from a public health perspective it will then be safe to do so.

He was, though, critical of the approach in England, saying looser restrictions had led to “thousands upon thousands” of people unable to do their jobs because of sickness. He said:

The government in England has been paralysed throughout this process and simply hasn’t been able to take decisions. In Wales we have a government that is prepared to do difficult things when they are necessary to protect public health.”

There was a flurry on social media last night about a move by a local Conservative association to withdraw support from prime minister Boris Johnson over the continual succession of news about Downing Street parties during periods of Covid restriction.

Sutton Coldfield Conservatives is an association in a safe Tory seat, and BBC Radio 4’s Today programme have had local councillor Simon Ward on. PA Media quote him telling the show:

The conversation we had last night … was really about what I think we have the right to expect from our leaders and the standards of leadership we expect from them, and the trust that we put in them.

This is about what the right thing is for politics, what the right thing is for our leaders, how this reflects on our country as well, and it’s just massively disappointing and it reflects very, very poorly on us as a nation as well.

James Slack issues apology for ‘anger and hurt’ caused by Downing Street party ahead of Duke’s funeral

The Prime Minister’s former director of communications has apologised for the “anger and hurt” caused by a Downing Street party which it is claimed was held as his leaving do last year, during a period of Covid restrictions. The gathering, which the Telegraph has reported featured dancing, thirty people, and the fetching of a suitcase of wine from a Co-op shop on the Strand, is alleged to have taken place the night before the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh.

James Slack, who was appointed deputy editor-in-chief of the Sun newspaper last year, said:

I wish to apologise unreservedly for the anger and hurt caused. This event should not have happened at the time that it did. I am deeply sorry, and take full responsibility.

PA Media report he then said he could not comment further as the matter had been referred to Sue Gray’s investigation.

Cambodia has began a fourth round of vaccinations against Covid in response to the omicron variant, with high-risk groups being among the first to receive the additional boosters.

Frontline medical staff and members of the armed forces were among those lining up at hospitals and clinics. Government ministers, including prime minister Hun Sen, also received booster doses today.

A Cambodian man, right, receives a shot of fourth dose of the Pfizer’s Covid vaccine at a heath centre in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
A Cambodian man, right, receives a shot of fourth dose of the Pfizer’s Covid vaccine at a heath centre in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photograph: Heng Sinith/AP

Hun Sen has appealed to all Cambodian people to get fully vaccinated, including a booster, saying on his Facebook page that it is the only way to make sure to keep their families and communities safe from Covid. Associated Press remind us that a campaign to have people get their third jabs is still ongoing.

The country’s first case of the Omicron variant was confirmed in mid-December in a 23-year-old woman who returned from Ghana. Cambodia reopened its borders to fully vaccinated travellers on 15 November, two weeks earlier than originally planned, in a move aimed at revitalising the country’s economic and social activity.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has been notably quiet this week, but we do have a statement from him this morning about some better-than-expected GDP figures for the UK, showing a bit of a bounce back from the impact of Covid restrictions. He said:

It’s amazing to see the size of the economy back to pre-pandemic levels in November – a testament to the grit and determination of the British people.

The Government is continuing to support the economy, including through grants, loans and tax reliefs for businesses, and our Plan for Jobs is ensuring people up and down the country have fantastic opportunities.

We all have a vital part to play to protect lives and jobs, and I urge everyone to do theirs by getting boosted as soon as you can.

My colleague Graeme Wearden has more:

Paul Karp

Paul Karp has this analysis for us from Australia and how Novak Djokovic has ended up in this situation. His visa has been cancelled in the last few minutes. Paul writes:

When Novak Djokovic landed in Melbourne late on the evening of 5 January, he thought a visa and a medical exemption approved by Tennis Australia’s chief medical officer and an independent Victorian government board would guarantee him a shot at his 10th Australian Open and record 21st grand slam.

But his fate was sealed by a hardening view in the Australian government and its Border Force that a recent Covid diagnosis was itself not enough to enter the country quarantine-free, and an error on his immigration paperwork that took days to come to light.

Djokovic challenged his visa cancellation in the federal circuit court, winning because the judge agreed it had been unreasonable of Border Force to renege on a deal to give him more time to address the exemption issue.

First set Djokovic. He took to Melbourne Park, ensuring familiar images of him on Rod Laver arena’s Avatar-blue court that seemed to promise another shot at grand slam greatness.

Even public opinion – so long set against Djokovic for his refusal to be vaccinated to play a tournament in one of the world’s most locked down cities during the pandemic – seemed to swing back his way.

But momentum swung against Djokovic when it was noted that his presence in Belgrade for Christmas suggested a declaration he hadn’t travelled in the fortnight before his flight to Australia from Spain was wrong, to say nothing of his public appearances in the days after his positive test on 16 December.

Read more of Paul Karp’s analysis here: What more could Novak Djokovic have done? Get vaccinated, isolate and get the facts right

Government minister Damian Hinds has, you will not be surprised to learn, had a torrid time on Sky News in that interview. He said:

If the details that are in the story turn out to be true, then clearly people are going to form their their judgement. But it will be part of these broader investigations being undertaken by by by Sue Gray. The terms of reference have been clear that those investigations should cover events, plural, alleged events, the nature of them, who attended them, or the purpose of them. And I think we do need to see what comes through in that report. The prime minister has also be clear in the terms of reference clear that if allegations are found to be true, of individuals appear to have been guilty of wrongdoing, then action can indeed be taken.

PA Media have just published this quick summary to remind us of how Covid regulations impacted on the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh last year. They say:

  • The guest list was trimmed from 800 to 30.
  • The Queen attended the funeral wearing a face mask and socially distanced from her family at the service in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
  • Those in the funeral procession were required to put their face masks on before entering St George’s Chapel.
  • Original plans for military processions through London or Windsor were scrapped, with the royal family asking the public not to gather at the castle or other royal residences.
  • The choir was also limited to just four singers, while the few guests were banned from singing in line with the Covid regulations.

Damian Hinds, the government minister of state for security, is on media duties this morning. I think it would be fair to say that he’s been rendered pretty speechless by this news, broken late last night by the Telegraph, of these parties at Downing Street. The opening question on Sky News was whether he would like to apologise to the Queen on behalf of the government. He said:

I was shocked to read it. I have only just read it, it is just out in this morning’s papers, and we will have to see what comes out further in the investigation.

Hello from London, it is Martin Belam here. Let me put it to you like this. When I started my shift on Wednesday morning, the official position of the prime minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, was that to his knowledge no parties had taken place in Number 10 and no rules had been broken. He’d been clear about that on at least seven different occasions, including at the despatch box in parliament.

When I started my shift on Thursday, the official position of the prime minister Boris Johnson was that he was sorry that he hadn’t broken up a party at Number 10, which did take place, and which he had attended for 25 minutes.

And now I’ve started my shift today after a night where it appears “suitcase of wine” has been trending on social media because of the news of another raucous party night in the heart of government during lockdown, this time the night before the Queen sat alone at her husband’s funeral, which generated one of the defining images of the Covid pandemic in the UK.

Queen Elizabeth II after taking her seat for the funeral of her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.
Queen Elizabeth II after taking her seat for the funeral of her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

The morning media round should be quite lively. I’ll bring you key quotes as they come in, and of course, the Covid news from around the world, and the latest on that breaking Novak Djokovic story. Stay tuned.

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