Boris Johnson has refused to sack Dominic Cummings, standing by his embattled chief aide despite a growing scandal in the UK over his reported decision to break lockdown restrictions multiple times.
The Prime Minister said that Cummings had “no alternative” but to drive 260 miles across England to stay with his parents while his wife was sick with Covid-19 symptoms, insisting he 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 added at the government’s daily coronavirus briefing on Sunday.
Cummings’ movements during lockdown have sparked a scandal in Britain, quickly becoming a defining moment in the country’s much-scrutinized response to the coronavirus pandemic and threatening to undermine the restrictions Johnson has spent eight weeks pleading with Britons to follow.
But Johnson resisted growing political pressure to sack Cummings, batting back accusations from across the political spectrum that he has allowed his aides to disobey the rules.
He sidestepped reports that Cummings subsequently returned to the north of England on multiple other occasions, saying only that he has “looked at them carefully” and was “content that (Cummings) behaved responsibly” and with the intention of stopping the spread of the virus.
Johnson left many questions unanswered – including whether Cummings visited a town 30 miles away from his parents’ home, as witnesses have said he did, and whether he knew that Cummings was leaving London.
Ministers have spent much of the weekend loyally defending Cummings, the enigmatic aide often portrayed as the mastermind behind Johnson’s premiership, after reports of the first journey emerged.
But Cummings’ position became more perilous still on Sunday, after fresh claims emerged that he had in fact broken the UK’s coronavirus lockdown on multiple occasions throughout April.
Johnson’s refusal to let Cummings go ensures the controversy will continue to overshadow the country’s coronavirus response in the coming days.
‘Enough is enough’
Johnson’s response will do little to appease critics, who have been asking why Cummings needed to drive across England to find childcare despite being healthy and free of Covid-19 symptoms.
“Boris Johnson just insulted every person in this country who has made sacrifices to follow the rules he implemented to save lives in this pandemic,” the Labour Party’s shadow justice minister David Lammy said during Johnson’s briefing.
The Prime Minister said he has had “extensive” conversations with Cummings on Sunday, insisting that “Mr Cummings did isolate for 14 days or more,” even if it was not at his London home.
The uproar over Cummings’ behavior began on Friday evening when two newspapers, The Guardian and the Daily Mirror, revealed he had traveled from London to Durham to stay at his parents’ property at the end of March while his wife had coronavirus symptoms.
The journey appeared a clear breach of the UK’s lockdown, with Cummings’ boss Johnson repeatedly urging the public to “stay at home” and “save lives,” and has dominated front pages in the country throughout the weekend.
But ministers have stood by the aide, insisting he needed his parents to care for his child in case Cummings also became sick with symptoms, which he later did. “Caring for your wife and child is not a crime,” minister Michael Gove tweeted, one of a number of leading government figures to claim the lockdown allowed for such trips.
It marked a notable shift from previous episodes regarding the lockdown. When leading epidemiologist Neil Ferguson was forced to resign from the scientific body advising the government for breaching lockdown, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he was left speechless by the “extraordinary” breach. On Saturday, Hancock said Cummings’ trip was “entirely right.”
That defense was bruised on Sunday, after the same papers dropped new details alleging Cummings had been seen in the Durham area on multiple occasions after his initial trip. Downing Street has rebutted the subsequent claims, saying in a statement that they “will not waste our time answering a stream of false allegations about Mr. Cummings from campaigning newspapers.”
Cummings’ influence over ministers is well documented in the British political press, but Downing Street’s approach is no longer being followed by several of Johnson’s own backbenchers, who one by one began to call on Cummings to go on Sunday.
“Enough is enough,” Conservative lawmaker Steve Baker wrote in an opinion piece for The Critic website. “Dominic Cummings must go before he does any more harm to the UK, the Government, the Prime Minister, our institutions or the Conservative Party.”
And concerns have been raised that the government’s defense of Cummings’ behavior has given implicit permission to the public to interpret the lockdown rules however they see fit.
“There cannot be one rule for Dominic Cummings and another for the British people,” the opposition Labour Party said in a statement.
A scandal at the end of a torrid week
The timing of the controversy is particularly unfortunate for the Prime Minister, who has overseen the deadliest Covid-19 outbreak in Europe and who was forced into an embarrassing U-turn on a controversial fee for immigrant health care workers just days earlier.
On Thursday the Prime Minister was forced into his first major policy U-turn since winning a sizable majority in December’s general election, agreeing to scrap a heavily criticized fee that overseas NHS and health care workers were forced to pay while simultaneously working on the front lines of the country’s coronavirus battle.
“We cannot clap our carers one day and then charge them to use our NHS the next,” said Labour leader Keir Starmer, who is proving a formidable opponent to Johnson as he settles into the position he took over in April. Starmer was referring to the weekly round of applause for health workers that Britons have been taking part in.
Johnson had defended the surcharge as late as Wednesday, telling MPs “we must look at the realities” and insisting the fee was “the right way forward” to provide the NHS with funding.
But by Thursday the policy was gone, amid growing discontent among Tory backbenchers. The change in tone added to the criticism Johnson has faced over the NHS, with opponents pointing to a lack in personal protective equipment (PPE) and a slow rate of testing.
Throughout the controversies, Britain’s death toll has continued to climb. Though it is well past its peak of cases and deaths, the country has seen more fatalities from Covid-19 than any other country in Europe, with more than 36,000 in total.
The country is entering its final week under the current phase of lockdown. From June 1, the government will look to lift certain restrictions as it paves a way back towards normality.
CNN’s Simon Cullen and Sarah Dean contributed reporting.