British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended his chief adviser Dominic Cummings, amid a clamour of calls for Cummings to resign after it emerged he travelled to Durham from London while the country was on lockdown and everyone had been told to stay at home.
Johnson told a news conference on Sunday that he believed Cummings had acted “responsibly and legally”.
“I think that what they did was totally understandable,” he added. “I think any father, any parent would frankly understand what he did and I certainly do.”
Cummings drove 250 miles (400 kilometres) from London to his parents’ home in Durham, in northeast England, with his wife and son as he was coming down with COVID-19 symptoms at the end of March.
Britain’s lockdown, which began on March 23, stipulated that people should remain at their primary residence, leaving only for essential local errands and exercise. Anyone with coronavirus symptoms was told to completely isolate themselves.
The Sun newspaper reported late on Sunday that Johnson was facing a cabinet revolt over his support for Cummings, a divisive figure most known for his role in the campaign to take the UK out of the European Union.
“He (Cummings) cannot stay,” the paper quoted an unnamed minister as saying. “There has to be some contrition from Boris too or he will spend the next ten weeks having to answer questions about it all. This is not a bubble story. Real people are furious because they have been doing the right thing and isolating.”
The Sun report came after some Conservative MPs joined opposition calls for Cummings to resign.
“Dominic Cummings has a track record of believing that the rules don’t apply to him and treating the scrutiny that should come to anyone in a position of authority with contempt,” tweeted Conservative politician Damian Collins. “The government would be better without him.”
Tory politician Steve Baker on Sunday said Cummings “must go before he does any more harm to the UK, the government, the prime minister, our institutions or the Conservative Party,” in remarks featured on the UK website The Critic.
The government has defended Cummings, saying he travelled to be near extended family because his wife was showing COVID-19 symptoms, he correctly thought he was also infected and he wanted to ensure that his four-year-old son was looked after.
Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said Cummings’ actions were “justifiable and reasonable”.
Taking care of your wife and young child is justifiable and reasonable, trying to score political points over it isn’t. https://t.co/QVkFmKgOsW
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) May 23, 2020
The coronavirus cut a swath through the top ranks of Britain’s government in March and April, infecting people including Cummings, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Johnson himself, who was admitted intensive care in a London hospital before recovering.
Critics of the government expressed outrage that Cummings had broken strict rules that for two months have prevented Britons from visiting elderly relatives, comforting dying friends or even attending the funerals of loved ones. The opposition Labour Party has called for an official investigation.
Cummings is a key but contentious figure in Johnson’s government. A self-styled political disruptor who disdains the media and civil service, he orchestrated the Conservatives’ decisive election victory in December.
The Prime Minister has treated the British people with contempt.
One rule for Dominic Cummings, another for everybody else. pic.twitter.com/XIFCztZnbu
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) May 24, 2020
Reporting from London, Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker said Johnson would want to ensure that lingering questions over his chief adviser’s whereabouts in March and April “dissipate as quickly as possible”.
“Undoubtedly this is an unwanted distraction from what the government hopes would be its main message that it is under control, that it is easing restrictions, is in charge when it comes to making sure normality returns to this country,” he said.
Gradual easing of lockdown
Johnson’s government is already facing criticism for its response to a pandemic that has hit Britain harder than any other European country.
Britain’s official coronavirus death toll stands at 36,757, the second-highest confirmed total in the world after the United States.
Statistics that include suspected as well as confirmed virus cases put the toll well over 40,000.
The UK is gradually easing its lockdown, allowing more outdoor recreation and letting some shops and businesses reopen.
The government hopes primary schools can start reopening in June, although many parents and teachers worry that it is not yet safe to do so.
Cummings is one of several senior UK officials to be accused of flouting the lockdown rules.
Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson stepped down as government scientific adviser earlier this month after a newspaper disclosed that his girlfriend had crossed London to stay with him during the lockdown. At the time Hancock, the health minister, said he was “speechless” at the revelations.
In April, Catherine Calderwood resigned as Scotland’s chief medical officer after twice travelling from Edinburgh to her second home.