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Thursday briefing: Johnson draws a mask over party fiasco

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<span>Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AP</span>
Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AP

PM brings in fresh Covid restrictions as he fights for credibility … Guardian named news provider of the year … and grandparental leave


Top story: Tory MPs mutinous over crisis of trust

Good morning, I’m Warren Murray, and here we are again on the road to masks and home working.

Boris Johnson has rushed in “plan B” Covid restrictions for England at the same time as his government is engulfed in a crisis of credibility sparked by the Christmas party scandal. As more alleged gatherings involving staff and the PM himself come under the spotlight, Mark Harper, a former Conservative chief whip, questioned why anyone should “do things that people working in No 10 Downing Street are not prepared to do”. Johnson’s own Tory MPs and ministers have been vocal in their fury over the whole affair. Prof Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage scientists’ group advising the government, said Omicron “could be completely out of control fairly quickly. We need a communal response to keep ourselves safe, and for that we really need trust in government.”

The former journalist Allegra Stratton has stepped down as a government spokesperson over the footage of her joking about a party at Downing Street. Senior journalists and former colleagues said she was being scapegoated for a party which, during the video, she said she had not even attended. Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor, said: “She is a model for many in modern politics … in that she has taken responsibility and quit without prevarication.” The resignation was also seen as further confirmation the rule-breaking party took place. Johnson apologised in the Commons, claiming to be “sickened” by the video, and asked Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, to investigate whether the event complied with Covid rules.

* * *

Pfizer ‘three-dose vaccine’ – Three doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are likely to protect against infection with the Omicron variant but two doses may not, according to laboratory data that will increase pressure to speed up booster programmes. The tests used antibodies in blood samples and its findings suggest that, for Omicron, Pfizer/BioNTech should now be viewed as a “three-dose vaccine”. The makers said they would continue with plans to develop an updated Omicron-based vaccine by March 2022. Pfizer’s data is among the first to be released about Omicron immunity and has not been peer-reviewed. Separate preliminary results from Germany have found significant reductions in antibody potency for the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines against Omicron. Vaccine makers now face the task of deciding whether a tweaked variant jab will be required and what form it should take.

* * *

Less than energetic – Ofgem, the energy regulator, is responsible for allowing the collapse of dozens of energy suppliers leading to spiralling household bills, according to Citizens Advice (CA). The charity says Ofgem failed to act against rule-breaking suppliers for almost 10 years, and households bear the brunt of its “catalogue of errors”. The loss of 26 suppliers and record high gas prices could mean household bills rising by an extra £94. CA says it gave repeated warnings about the precarious finances of small suppliers. Nils Pratley writes that CA’s damning report “adds to the impression that Ofgem, under political pressure to show it was promoting competition, was happy to welcome any Johnny-come-lately wishing to have a punt”. An Ofgem spokesperson said the regulator had accepted “the current system was not designed for this sort of extreme market event” and that the energy market needed “reform and quickly”. It plans to set out changes in the next few weeks.

* * *

British Journalism Awards – Guardian and Observer journalists have won four awards at the British Journalism Awards (BJA), including news provider of the year. Marina Hyde took home the prize for comment journalism, while Sirin Kale and Lucy Osborne won in the arts and entertainment journalism category. Stephanie Kirchgaessner won in technology journalism for her stories on the Pegasus project, while there were commendations for the Queen’s consent investigation and the Observer’s James Tapper in the health and life sciences journalism category. Aniefiok Ekpoudom won the Barbara Blake Hannah award for his work for the Guardian and Observer, while Rukhshana Media, the Afghan women’s media organisation, won the Marie Colvin award. Other top awards included ITV News’s Robert Moore winning journalist of the year for his reporting from the US Capitol riots, while the Sun won scoop of the year for revealing former health secretary Matt Hancock’s office affair in the midst of the pandemic. For a full list of the winners, click here.

* * *

‘Unearned, unequal and untaxed’ – The £3tn windfall from soaring house prices in the past 20 years should be subject to a capital gains tax (CGT), raising £11bn a year so that poorer households can be spared paying more in tax, the Resolution Foundation has urged. The thinktank said the government should consider applying CGT to increases in the value of main residences in the UK as well as to sales of second homes, instead of increasing tax on income and profits. It said house prices had risen by 86% more than inflation in the past two decades and the gains had been “unearned, unequal and untaxed”. None of the main political parties has indicated it would be willing to take the risk of angering homeowners, but Labour has been exploring the possibility of wealth taxes on shareholders.

* * *

Grand gesture – Saga, the travel and insurance company for the over-50s, is to give employees a week of paid leave to celebrate the birth of a grandchild. The company, which employs 2,500 staff, said it was introducing the policy in recognition that grandparents play an increasingly essential role in childcare while also building a work culture that appeals to the over-50s. “This is about helping new grandparents celebrate a special moment and play a role in growing families from day one,” said Jane Storm, the chief people officer at Saga. “It is also a symbol of how important older workers are to their companies and society.”

Today in Focus podcast: The abandoning of Afghanistan

A whistleblower has accused the British government of abject failures in its efforts to manage the evacuation of people from Afghanistan as the Taliban took control in August. Emma Graham-Harrison returns to the country to find it facing a humanitarian crisis.

Lunchtime read: Downfall of Hitler’s favourite film-maker

Nina Gladitz dedicated her life to proving beyond doubt the complicity of Leni Riefenstahl, the Triumph of the Will director, with the horrors of Nazism. In the end, she did it – but at a cost.

Sport

England were left to rue a costly no-ball from Ben Stokes which saw David Warner survive being bowled out on day two of the first Ashes Test but led by Ollie Robinson the visitors began to stage a fightback at the the Gabba. Tottenham’s push to postpone their Europa Conference League tie at home against Rennes on Thursday night has been met with a furious response by the French club. The Olympic cyclist Mark Cavendish and his family have been left distressed after an attack by armed burglars that had them fearing for their lives. Barcelona crashed out of the Champions League after Bayern Munich’s Thomas Müller sparked another humiliating defeat for Xavi’s side. Ralf Rangnick fielded an experimental side but Mason Greenwood was the only one to come out with much credit in Manchester United’s 1-1 draw at home to Young Boys. Magomed Ozdoev scored in added time to deny Chelsea victory and top spot in their final Champions League group game, a 3-3 draw at Zenit St Petersburg.

Joe Montemurro, the Juventus manager, scored a rare success in his battle with Chelsea counterpart Emma Hayes, as the Italian side earned a Women’s Champions League point at Kingsmeadow, where Sam Kerr was booked for shoving over a pitch invader. Sports fans will be required to show proof of a negative Covid test before attending live events in England, as part of a range of measures announced by the government to halt the spread of Covid. Tiger Woods will make his return to competitive golf next week at the PNC Championship alongside his 12-year-old son, Charlie. The Ryder Cup winner Thorbjørn Olesen wept in court and said he wants to focus on his golf after he was cleared of sexually assaulting a woman on a British Airways flight. John Mitchell has denied that he abruptly left his role as England’s defence coach after a falling out with Eddie Jones despite signing an extension to his contract just three months before he quit the role. And Norway’s Magnus Carlsen inched closer toward the fourth successful defence of his world championship, playing to a quiet 41-move draw with Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi in the 10th game of their showdown in Dubai.

Business

The RMT rail union is preparing to ballot its members on industrial action over rising concern about likely redundancies as train operating companies seek 10% savings. Such redundancies would mean “trains are coming to a halt”, the TSSA union said after it failed to get assurances over jobs. The FTSE looks like lifting 0.2% at the opening while the pound will fetch you $1.322 and €1.166.

The papers

We have a separate story on the front pages today, summarised as follows.

The Guardian splashes on “PM triggers Covid plan B as party scandal engulfs No 10”. The Mail combines Wednesday’s announcement of new Covid rules with the No 10 scandal: “One rule for them, new rules for the rest of us”. It carries a large picture of a tearful Allegra Stratton. The Sun has Johnson mocked up as the Grinch – its headline, “Do as I say... not as I Christmas do”. The Mirror says “Plan B for us .. Plan ‘lie, lie, lie’ for him”. The Telegraph leads with the headline “Don’t go to work, but do go to parties”, referring to Johnson’s announcement about a Covid plan B rather than any ironic reference to the row over the alleged No 10 gathering. It does, however, have a smaller story on calls for the PM to quit if he misled MPs over the scandal.

The Times splashes on “PM orders return to working from home”. Also on the front: “Tories held raucous second party”. The Express headline sticks to the slightly better bad news for the government: “PM: plan B best chance for ‘close to normal’ Xmas”. The Financial Times says “Johnson adopts plan B to check virus as anger festers over parties”. The Daily Star joins in the bashing. “Cluebo” reads the headline with the subhead saying “Captain Cock-up: It was everybody else, in the No 10 drawing room, with wine and nibbles”. In Scotland, where Tory leader Douglas Ross has said Johnson should resign if he is shown to have lied, the Scotsman says “Scottish Tories line up to condemn Johnson”, and the Edinburgh Evening News splashes with the words of an ICU nurse: “While they were partying, I was caring for people who were dying”. The Record puts it more bluntly: “Party’s over … now get out”.

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