Boris Johnson has staked his political reputation on saving the career of Dominic Cummings, amid growing anger among Conservative MPs that the No 10 chief adviser has not been forced out for breaking lockdown rules.
Under intense pressure to explain why Cummings drove his wife, who was suffering coronavirus symptoms, and son 264 miles to his parents’ farm in Durham, the prime minister said on Sunday that Cummings had “acted responsibly, legally and with integrity”.
“I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent, and I do not mark him down for that,” Johnson told the daily Downing Street press briefing.
But within hours of Johnson’s defence of Cummings, the Guardian and Daily Mirror revealed the aide faces a possible police investigation into allegedly breaking self-isolation and lockdown rules by travelling a further 30 miles to the beauty spot of Barnard Castle.
The alleged visit was reported to Durham police by retired chemistry teacher Robin Lees, it can be revealed, and is the latest in a series of Guardian disclosures that have rocked the government and left the Tory party in turmoil
© ASSOCIATED PRESS In this photo issued by 10 Downing Street, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a media briefing on coronavirus in Downing Street, London, Sunday May 24, 2020. Boris Johnson says he won’t fire his chief aide Dominic Cummings for allegedly violating the national coronavirus lockdown rules that he helped to create. (Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street via AP)It comes as:
The prime minister did not deny that Cummings travelled from his parents’ farm to Barnard Castle at a time when non-essential journeys were banned, insisting only that he had self-isolated for 14 days.
A second passerby came forward to claim that they saw Cummings in bluebell woods on 19 April, five days after Downing Street says he returned to London and remained in the capital.
Nine Tory MPs publicly called on him to go, while three members of a government scientific advisory committee criticised ministers for “trashing” their advice, eroding trust and reducing compliance with lockdown.
After spending several hours with Cummings in Downing Street on Sunday, the prime minister told the briefing that his aide had travelled to “try to find the right kind of childcare” and claimed he wanted to reduce the spread of the virus.
“I have had extensive face-to-face conversations with Dominic Cummings and I have concluded that in travelling to find the right kind of childcare, at the moment when both he and his wife were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus – and when he had no alternative – I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent,” Johnson said.
Describing some of the allegations against Cummings as “palpably false” – but not saying which – the prime minister continued: “I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly, legally and with integrity, and with the overriding aim to stopping the spread of the virus and saving lives.”
© PA Wire/PA Images Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s senior aid Dominic Cummings xxxxxx his north London home, as lockdown questions continue to bombard the Government after it emerged that he travelled to his parents’ home despite coronavirus-related restrictions. (Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)Three members of SPI-B, the Sage subcommittee providing advice from behavioural scientists to government on how the public might respond to lockdown measures, reacted with disdain to Johnson’s defence of Cummings.
Prof Stephen Reicher, of St Andrews University, tweeted: “I can say that in a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson has trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control Covid-19.
“Be open and honest, we said. Trashed. Respect the public, we said. Trashed. Ensure equity, so everyone is treated the same, we said. Trashed. Be consistent we said. Trashed. Make clear ‘we are all in it together’. Trashed.
“It is very hard to provide scientific advice to a government which doesn’t want to listen to science. I hope, however, that the public will read our papers … and continue to make up for this bad government with their own good sense.”
He was backed by Prof Susan Michie and Prof Robert West.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said Johnson’s decision to take no action against Cummings was “an insult to sacrifices made by the British people”.
The Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who accepted the resignation of the country’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, after she visited a second home during lockdown, said Johnson should follow this example.
“I know it is tough to lose a trusted adviser at the height of crisis, but when it’s a choice of that or integrity of vital public health advice, the latter must come first,” she said.
“That’s the judgment I and, to her credit, Catherine Calderwood reached. PM and Cummings should do likewise.”
Johnson’s unexpected appearance at the press briefing on Sunday – his first in nearly two weeks – was seen by his own MPs as an attempt to protect Cummings following revelations that the adviser had broken the lockdown rules he had helped to write.
Johnson did not respond to a series of detailed questions including whether Cummings stopped during the four-hour journey and whether the prime minister had known of Cummings’s trip at the time.
Senior Tory MPs said that the prime minister’s decision to attend the press conference and his inability to answer detailed questions will fuel the furore and will damage his premiership. “The PM is losing his instinct, he might be losing the plot and we could lose the country over this virus,” said one.
Reacting to the prime minister’s comments, Sir Roger Gale MP said it was an “extraordinary position” for Johnson to take. “It’s up to the prime minister to exercise judgment about who he has around him,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
Tim Montgomerie, a former Johnson adviser, tweeted: “Tonight, I’m really embarrassed to have ever backed Boris Johnson for high office.”
MPs including the former minister and 1922 Committee member, Steve Baker, and the chair of the Northern Ireland select committee, Simon Hoare, said Cummings should step aside to stop further damage to the government.
Hoare said: “With the damage Mr Cummings is doing to the government’s reputation, he must consider his position. Lockdown has had its challenges for everyone.
“It’s his cavalier ‘I don’t care; I’m cleverer than you’ tone that infuriates people. He is now wounding the PM/Govt & I don’t like that.”
Anger and dismay was also expressed by Church of England bishops on Twitter after the prime minister’s press conference. The Rt Revd Nick Baines, bishop of Leeds, said: “The question now is: do we accept being lied to, patronised and treated by a PM as mugs? The moral question is not for Cummings – it is for PM and ministers/MPs who find this behaviour acceptable.
“What are we to teach our children? (I ask as a responsible father.)”
A few minutes earlier, the Rt Revd Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, bishop of Ripon, wrote: “Integrity, trust and leadership were never there; just a driven misguided ideology of power that has total disregard for the most weak and vulnerable, and those who work to protect and care for us with relatively low pay.”
Following the press conference, Starmer said: “This was a test of the prime minister and he has failed it. It is an insult to sacrifices made by the British people that Boris Johnson has chosen to take no action against Dominic Cummings. The public will be forgiven for thinking there is one rule for the prime minister’s closest adviser and another for the British people.
“The prime minister’s actions have undermined confidence in his own public health message at this crucial time. Millions were watching for answers and they got nothing. That’s why the cabinet secretary must now launch an urgent inquiry.”
Leaving Downing Street after about six hours in No 10 on Sunday, Cummings refused to answer questions. Earlier, police officers had visited his north London home in response to media gathering outside.
A jogger reported that he saw Cummings on 19 April, five days after Downing Street says he returned to London from Durham and did not return.
Ministers had denied reports in the Guardian and Daily Mirror that Cummings was seen looking at bluebells in woods near Houghall, close to his family’s property on the outskirts of Durham, that day.
Our source stood by their claim and Tim Matthews, a runner, has since come forward to claim he saw Cummings later that day. Matthews tweeted a link to a route from the running app Strava that he had dubbed “Brick Run aka Dominic Cummings Spotting Run”.
It marks the area where he saw Cummings at 3.45pm on 19 April. He tweeted: “Here’s my two potential sightings Riverbanks and Houghall Woods – I’ve been banging on about them ever since.”
© Provided by The Guardian Dominic Cummings leaves 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Meanwhile Cummings is facing a possible police investigation under health laws over a claim that he breached self-isolation rules by allegedly visiting Barnard Castle on 12 April. Lees made a complaint by email to police on Sunday after reporting that he saw Cummings and his family walking in the town before getting into a car.
The alleged sighting of Cummings in the town appeared to come while he was still ill, according to his own account. Writing in the Spectator last month, Cummings said: “At the end of March and for the first two weeks of April I was ill, so we [Cummings and his wife] were both shut in together.”
Johnson did not dispute that his adviser had made a trip to the Tees Valley beauty spot. Asked directly about the visit, the prime minister said: “When you look at the guidance, when you look at the particular childcare needs that Mr Cummings faced at the time, it was reasonable of him to self-isolate as he did for 14 days or more with his family where he did. I think that was sensible and defensible and I understand it.”
Durham police has yet to respond to complaint but the Guardian understands the force is considering whether it needs to take any further action in relation to Cummings.
As well as Lees’ complaint, the leader of the Liberal Democrats group on Durham County Council has demanded the police open an investigation into whether Cummings broke the 2020 Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations.