“I was also furious to see that clip,” Mr Johnson told lawmakers in the House of Commons overnight.
“I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country and I apologise for the impression it gives.”
For days, the Prime Minister’s office has been trying to rebut reports that Mr Johnson’s staff held a December 2020 office party — complete with wine, food, games and a festive gift exchange — when pandemic regulations banned most social gatherings in the country.
According to multiple British media outlets, the party took place on December 18, when restrictions in London prohibited indoor gatherings, and a day before Mr Johnson tightened the rules even further, ruling out family Christmases for millions of people.
In response to the footage, aired late on Tuesday (Wednesday morning AEDT) by broadcaster ITV, the Prime Minister’s office said: “There was no Christmas party. COVID rules have been followed at all times.”
The video, recorded on December 22, 2020, shows then-press secretary Allegra Stratton appearing to joke about an illicit party at the prime minister’s Downing Street office.
The recording appears to be a mock press conference, held as a rehearsal for televised daily government media briefings.
Another aide, playing a journalist, says: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?”
As laughter is heard, Ms Stratton says: “I went home” and asks colleagues: “What’s the answer?” Another voice can be heard saying: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine”.
“Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting,” Ms Stratton says, laughing.
Thousands of people in Britain have been fined since early 2020 for breaking restrictions by holding illegal gatherings. London’s Metropolitan Police force said officers were reviewing the leaked video in relation to “alleged breaches” of coronavirus regulations.
‘Queen sat alone at Philip’s funeral’
The leaked video has sparked fury from all parts of the UK, even reportedly inside Mr Johnson’s own party.
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer contrasted the Christmas party allegations with Queen Elizabeth’s behaviour throughout the pandemic, stressing the importance of Britons having confidence in their leaders when being asked to sacrifice.
“Her Majesty the Queen sat alone when she marked the passing of the man she’d been married to for 73 years,” Mr Starmer told Parliament.
“Leadership, sacrifice. That’s what gives leaders the moral authority to lead.
“Does the Prime Minister think he has the moral authority to lead and to ask the British people to stick to the rules?”
He said the Prime Minister, who accused the Labour Party of playing politics with the pandemic, should “come clean and apologise”.
“People across the country followed the rules even when that meant being separated from their families, locked down and — tragically for many — unable to say goodbye to their loved ones,” Mr Starmer said.
“They had a right to expect that the government was doing the same. To lie and to laugh about those lies is shameful.”
A ‘bullet to the chest’ of families who lost loved ones
The Christmas party allegations are the latest in a string of allegations of rule-breaking and ethics violations by Mr Johnson’s Conservative government.
Dr Saleyha Ahsan from the group COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said the Christmas party allegations were a “bullet to the chest” of families who have lost loved ones during the pandemic.
Many have been barred by restrictions from visiting gravely ill or dying relatives in hospitals.
Dr Ahsan said it was “an example of how the government have run this from the start: One rule for them and the rest of us have to adhere to different rules.”
With more than 145,000 COVID-19 deaths in the pandemic, Britain has the second-highest virus death toll in Europe after Russia.
The party allegations come as the British government considers whether to reimpose some restrictions to slow the spread of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
While many questions remain about the new variant, and Delta remains the dominant strain across the globe, Mr Johnson said Omicron was “spreading much faster than any variant we have seen before”.
Two government ministers pulled out of planned media appearances on Wednesday where they had been due to discuss the coronavirus situation and Britain’s booster vaccination campaign.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, asked about the party claims after delivering a foreign-policy speech, failed to offer a strong endorsement of the Prime Minister and his staff.
“I don’t know the detail of what happened,” Ms Truss said.
“I know that the Prime Minister’s spokesman answered those questions in detail yesterday and I am sure there will be further discussion of that issue.”