London, United Kingdom – The anger in the United Kingdom is palpable, days after the breaking of lockdown rules by the prime minister’s most senior adviser was first reported.
It has been fuelled by the refusal of Dominic Cummings to resign and the government’s response, as leading figures in the Conservative Party insist he had done nothing wrong by travelling 400km (260 miles) with his wife and child to his parents’ home – while his wife was ill and he was convinced he had coronavirus – ostensibly to make sure their four-year-old son had childcare.
On Monday evening, Cummings spoke to the media, though he refused to apologise.
“I know people are suffering, thousands have died, and many are angry about what they have seen in the media about my actions,” he said.
He said he had made the trip at the end of March as his home in London had become “a target” after reported comments he opposed introducing the lockdown in order to build “herd immunity”, and he did not want to expose his wife and child to hostility while the family was ill.
“I did not oppose it, but these stories had created a very bad atmosphere around my home, I was subjected to threats of violence, people came to my house shouting threats, there were posts on social media encouraging attacks.”
At his parents’ farm estate, he said he stayed in a cottage 50 metres (164 feet) from their house, and maintained physical distance from them.
He said he did not make the trip public, nor did his wife mention it in a newspaper column in which she described self-isolating in London, to protect his parents’ home from being similarly targeted.
“My parents are in their 70s. Obviously, I did not want to give them this disease. And so we stayed very far away,” he said.
“We did have some conversations, but they were on a farm, and they were shouted conversations at a distance.”
He said he made no effort to find out if anyone living near his home could have helped.
“I did not think it was reasonable to ask friends in London to look after my son,” he said.
Cummings said he exercised his judgement in interpreting the rules and added he had not offered to resign.
“If you have got a child that’s four years old and neither of you can look after him, the guidance doesn’t say ‘you have just got to sit there’,” Cummings said.
“So I think I have behaved reasonably given the circumstances.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s comments on Sunday only served to increase public anger: “I think any father, any parent, would frankly understand what he did – and I certainly do.”
The UK’s lockdown rules have led to elderly people dying without their relatives, families being unable to take part in funerals of loved ones, and countless stories of grief multiplied because it could not be shared.
Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab was just 13 years old when he died, alone, in a hospital bed. His family could not be by his side in his final moments because of the strict distancing guidelines.
Official guidance states: “If you or someone you live with has symptoms of coronavirus, do not leave your home for any reason – if you need food or medicine, order it online or by phone, or ask someone to deliver it to your home.”
Calls for Cummings’ resignation have been widespread.
On Tuesday morning, Douglas Ross, a junior minister in the Scotland Office, resigned saying Cummings’s explanation over his travel during the lockdown was based on decisions “others felt were not available to them”.
“I have constituents who didn’t get to say goodbye to loved ones, families who could not mourn together, people who didn’t visit sick relatives because they followed the guidance of the government,” Ross said in a letter posted on Twitter, adding “I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right.”
On Monday morning, a top police official in Durham, the county to which Cummings travelled, called for a full, formal investigation. Cummings, along with his wife and child, also made a trip to a nearby tourist town on his wife’s birthday – purely, he said, to check if he was fit to drive back to London the following day.
Important thing is Cummings isolated. In Downing St, his London home, the car, a Durham cottage, some woods, some other woods, Barnard Castle, a riverside, an A1 petrol station and London again. It was VERY responsible and deffo within the rules that said YOU MUST STAY AT HOME.
— Alex Andreou (@sturdyAlex) May 25, 2020
“I have today written to the Chief Constable, asking her to establish the facts concerning any potential breach of the law or regulations in this matter,” said Acting Durham Police, Crime and Victims’ Commissioner Steve White in a statement.
“It is vital that the Force can show it has the interests of the people of County Durham and Darlington at its heart.”
Cummings’ apparent contempt for the rule of law has led to fears the nation’s lockdown rules are now unenforceable, or that the government’s scientific-led public health messaging has been fatally weakened.
“This development seriously undermines public trust in UK government advice at the current time,” Professor Linda Bauld, chair of public health in the Usher Institute at the University of Edinburgh, told Al Jazeera.
“It suggests one rule for the privileged and another for the rest of us. It also sends the message that individual judgement can be applied to decide to what extent we should follow public health guidance.
“We are already hearing from the police that this case is being used as an excuse by those gathering in groups and not maintaining social distancing. At a time when it is imperative that we continue to reduce the spread of the virus, such high-profile mixed messages could cost lives.”
Grant Shapps has effectively announced the end of enforceable lockdown in the daily #COVID19 press briefing. “You should do your best to keep to the guidance but it’s a matter of individual judgment”.
— James Melville (@JamesMelville) May 23, 2020
The government’s defence of Cummings – who is credited with masterminding the anti-EU messaging of the Brexit campaign, and Johnson’s number-one strategist ever since, despite being held in contempt of Parliament for refusing to answer questions about the alleged use of fake news during the referendum – has relied on his interpretation of what “special circumstances” might be applied to those who have children.
“I can understand why Johnson might insist on hanging on to Cummings: an ongoing bromance founded on political scheming, debts owed to Vote Leave from 2016, even Cummings’ hold on information that could damage the prime minister,” Scott Lucas, professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, told Al Jazeera.
“What I can’t understand is the brazen, dismissive manner in Johnson and Cummings’ statements.
“Johnson and Cummings could gamble, and win, on Brexit as ‘Us versus Them’. But there’s no ‘Us versus Them’ with coronavirus: many in their base of voters, constituents, and even Conservative MPs have paid a personal price in this crisis.”
On Monday morning, Tom Harwood of the right-wing Guido Fawkes blog pointed to examples of other public figures also flouting the lockdown rules.
“The thing is, Dominic Cummings didn’t know how sick his family would get,” Harwood told Good Morning Britain. “His child has specific childcare needs. It’s not like he was going out for extramarital affairs … to birthday parties, or to go to family funerals, as we’ve seen with other cases, particularly as we’ve seen with Labour MPs.
On Sunday, it had been reported on social media that Cummings’ son had autism, something, it was argued, that should be taken into account when considering his care needs. That was not officially confirmed anywhere.
Later reporting unearthed that Cummings’ uncle – with whom he had a close relationship – had been diagnosed with coronavirus and died of it in a London hospital on April 5. On Monday, Cummings denied that had any influence on his actions.
Professor Neil Ferguson, one of the architects of the lockdown rules, resigned from his position as a government adviser after admitting a woman had visited him at his home, while Labour MP Stephen Kinnock was criticised for visiting his parents – though he says he maintained distancing during the visit. Neither of them had COVID-19 symptoms.
With lockdown in place, the anger felt by Britons – from people who have lost loved ones to TV hosts, from bishops to Cummings’ neighbours, members of the House of Lords, Conservative MPs, and even the right-wing populist tabloid The Daily Mail – has been most strongly felt on social media.
My husband and I had covid in March. We have 3 young children, 2 are disabled. We had no support at all. Our relatives are 65miles away, but we followed the guidance to the letter. To hear a couple with one child excused of travelling 250+ miles to see family is utterly enraging
— Ciar Richardson (@cirichos) May 23, 2020
As one of those involved in SPI-B, the Government advisory group on behavioural science, 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.
— Stephen Reicher (@ReicherStephen) May 24, 2020
This is really quite something, very powerful indeed. Multiple of Dominic Cummings’ neighbours angrily & emotionally remonstrate with him pic.twitter.com/4SM52RoOvg
— Hannah Jane Parkinson (@ladyhaja) May 24, 2020
I'm 84. I've been in active politics since 1950. I've seen a lot – but I've never seen a government so corrupt and incompetent as this one. pic.twitter.com/rnco89nfyt
— Roger Roberts (@LordRRoberts) May 23, 2020
Deeply grateful for my colleagues who have said what I feel too.
Unless very soon we see clear repentance, including the sacking of Cummings, I no longer know how we can trust what ministers say sufficiently for @churchofengland to work together with them on the pandemic. https://t.co/3WsJWUrnVZ
— David Walker (@BishManchester) May 24, 2020
— Neil Henderson (@hendopolis) May 24, 2020
Johnson’s reticence to fire Cummings – and decision to embrace him – was “defending the indefensible”, and raised questions over his own continuing viability as prime minister, said analysts.
“Number 10 has badly misjudged the public mood in relation to Dominic Cummings,” Mark Shanahan, head of the politics department at the University of Reading, told Al Jazeera.
“Clearly Johnson and his inner cabinet … saw this as a story … that would wane within one or two news cycles. It hasn’t. This matters to a nation diligently locked down since March – a nation prepared to sacrifice everything to keep the dreaded R-number down.
“[Cummings’s] actions have touched a raw nerve. But his reaction to being caught – arrogant entitlement – is what has really grated. But this could have been contained with a quick sacking or forced resignation. But Boris Johnson did neither. Instead, he and the Number 10 machine have put all their energy into defending the indefensible.
“The story has been spun … culminating on Sunday evening with the political weaponising of a child. This is politics at its worst and has shown the prime minister to be weak. It is unlikely that Cummings will survive in post. It is unclear if Johnson, with or without his Svengali, has any long-term political future either.”
Follow James Brownsell on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell