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Britain’s scandal-hit Boris Johnson lifts coronavirus restrictions, battles to save premiership

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Jan. 19 that mask mandates and other coronavirus restrictions would be loosening in England. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday announced an easing of coronavirus restrictions in England amid growing calls from outside — and inside — his party for him to resign over repeated revelations of rule-flouting parties held at his residence and office.

The scandal-hit British leader told Parliament that starting next Thursday, the “Plan B” restrictions that were introduced in England to stem the rise of the omicron wave, including more mask-wearing, guidance to work from home and covid passports, would end.

“Our scientists believe that the omicron wave has now peaked nationally,” Johnson said. He added that hospital admissions have stabilized, with admissions in London falling. Masks would no longer be required in schools, as well.

Looking further ahead, he also said that the legal requirement for those who test positive to self-quarantine — recently cut from seven days to five — will not be renewed when it expires March 24. If science allows, he said he would like to bring that date forward.

Lifting restrictions is also a popular move among some Conservative lawmakers — there were loud cheers in the Commons with his announcement — and right now, Johnson can use all the friends he can get.

Britain’s Boris Johnson apologizes amid national anger over lockdown BYOB party at his residence

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson continued to confront questions from Parliament on Jan. 19 over his government's flouting of coronavirus restrictions. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

In a dramatic development Wednesday, just moments before the weekly question-and-answer session in Parliament, known as PMQs, a Conservative lawmaker, Christian Wakeford, defected to the rival Labour Party.

Johnson’s afternoon did not get any better after that. During a tumultuous session in Parliament, Johnson was criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the political divide.

Johnson is struggling to move on from allegations that Downing Street held a string of parties over the past two years, when they were banned in the rest of the country because of coronavirus restrictions.

In one jaw-dropping moment, David Davis, a senior Conservative and former Brexit secretary, urged Johnson to resign. Davis said he had spent weeks defending the prime minister from “angry constituents,” and then brought up in Parliament the example of Britain’s prewar prime minister infamous for appeasing Adolf Hitler.

“I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take,” he said. “So, I will remind him of a quotation which may be familiar to his ear: Leopold Amery to Neville Chamberlain: ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. In the name of God, go.’ ”

Johnson’s apology in the House of Commons last week — he acknowledged attending a “bring your own booze” Downing Street garden party but said he thought it was a work event — has not quelled a growing rebellion within his Conservative Party.

In his resignation letter, Wakeford, the former Conservative lawmaker, said that Britain “needs a government that upholds the highest standards of integrity and probity in public life and sadly both you and the Conservative Party as a whole have shown themselves incapable of offering the leadership and government this country deserves.”

The weekly session in Parliament was a boisterous affair, with Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, welcoming Wakeford to the Labour benches and dishing out zingers.

For instance, when he was met with a wall of noise from the other side, Starmer said that the Conservative Party whips seemed to have “told MPs to bring their own boos.”

For his part, Johnson said that he “entirely understands” people’s anger over the parties and accusations that the rulemakers were not following the rules themselves. But he urged the lawmakers to wait until next week, when a report by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, is due to be published.

The move to oust Johnson gained momentum Wednesday when, according to the Daily Telegraph, 11 lawmakers submitted letters of no confidence in Johnson. The paper said the revolt was from politicians who were elected in 2019 from northern England, where many districts voted Conservative for the first time.

To trigger a leadership challenge in the Conservative Party, 54 Conservative members of Parliament have to submit letters of no confidence to the chair of the 1922 Committee, made up of backbench party members. They do not have to do so publicly, so it’s unclear how many letters have been submitted so far.

Johnson has gotten himself out of political scrapes before, but this one has touched a nerve with the wider British public, which holds visceral memories of coronavirus isolation and the hardship brought by the restrictions at the time. His popularity ratings have sunk to record lows.

In an interview with Sky News on Wednesday, Johnson appeared distressed and hung his head when he was asked about the two parties at Downing Street that were held on the eve of the funeral for Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband. Johnson was not at those gatherings.

“I can only renew my apologies both to Her Majesty and to the country for misjudgments that were made and for which I take full responsibility,” he said.

Last week, Downing Street apologized to Buckingham Palace for the “deeply regrettable” events.

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