The Prime Minister has stood by his top aide Dominic Cummings amid claims he flouted the Government’s own coronavirus restrictions by travelling to Durham during the lockdown.
Mr Cummings is facing calls to resign, with Downing Street accused of a “cover up”, after it emerged he travelled 260 miles from his London home, days after Boris Johnson urged people not to travel apart from for “essential” reasons.
But Number 10 has insisted it was “essential” for Mr Cummings – whose wife had suspected coronavirus – to travel to ensure his child was looked after, with the adviser believing he behaved “reasonably and legally”.
The statement said: “Owing to his wife being infected with suspected coronavirus and the high likelihood that he would himself become unwell, it was essential for Dominic Cummings to ensure his young child could be properly cared for.
“His sister and nieces had volunteered to help so he went to a house near to but separate from his extended family in case their help was needed. His sister shopped for the family and left everything outside.”
After the reports emerged of Mr Cummings’s visit, Durham police said they attended a property in the area “to reiterate the appropriate advice around essential travel”.
But the No 10 statement appeared to suggest the police statement was incorrect, adding: “At no stage was he or his family spoken to by the police about this matter, as is being reported. His actions were in line with coronavirus guidelines. Mr Cummings believes he behaved reasonably and legally.”
Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries previously said that being too ill to look after a small child could be considered an “exceptional circumstance” to stay-at-home rules.
After the statement was issued, Mr Johnson’s Tory colleagues waded into the debate, with Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove tweeting: “Caring for your wife and child is not a crime.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab added in a tweet: “It’s reasonable and fair to ask for an explanation on this. And it has been provided: two parents with coronavirus, were anxiously taking care of their young child.Those now seeking to politicise it should take a long hard look in the mirror.” Chancellor Rishi Sunak also reiterated a similar message.
But Labour said Downing Street’s statement “raises more questions than it answers” with the adviser “appearing to believe it is one rule for him and another for the British people.”
A spokesman said: “The lockdown rules were very clear: if you or anyone in your household was suspected of having Covid-19 you must immediately self-isolate and not leave the house. However, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser appears to believe that it is one rule for him and another for the British people.
“This will cause understandable anger for the millions of people who have sacrificed so much during this crisis.
“Number 10’s statement also raises more questions than it answers. We are still unclear who knew about this decision and when, whether this was sanctioned by the Prime Minister and whether Number 10 is now questioning the validity of the statement from Durham Police. At this afternoon’s press conference, we will be expecting answers to these questions.”
The statement from the Prime Minister’s spokesman came on Saturday morning after MPs and key figures called for Mr Johnson to offer an explanation. Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, the union that represents senior civil servants, said when Mr Cummings says or does something, he is “essentially doing it in the Prime Minister’s name”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think the Prime Minister needs to understand how heartbreaking this lockdown has been for so many families and the sacrifices that have been made up and down the country.
“I think in these circumstances, if it looks like there is one rule for those at the centre of Government and one rule for rest of the country, then really the Prime Minister has a responsibility, as well as a constitutional responsibility, to explain his actions. He has known about this for six weeks.”
The MP told the Today show: “What I find interesting…is that (according to some reports) members of Downing Street knew about this so, first and foremost, Boris Johnson has serious questions to answer over what now appears to be a cover-up.
“The Prime Minister must explain exactly when he knew about the breaking of the rules, whether he sanctioned it, why Cummings wasn’t sacked immediately and why it appears that he tried to cover it up, not telling the public until the newspaper(s) broke the story eight weeks later last night.”
Mr Blackford said Mr Cummings’ alleged actions were “more serious breaches” than the apparent rule breaking carried out by UK Government adviser Professor Neil Ferguson and former Scotland chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood , both of whom resigned for their breaches. At the time, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he was “speechless” over Professor Ferguson’s behaviour.
He added: “Here we have the highest official in Government, the closest confidant of the Prime Minister prepared to break the rules that the rest of us are being asked to obey.
“You cannot have a situation where there appears to be one rule for the powerful and the millions of the rest of the public are being told we must follow Government advice. Demonstrably, this is an individual who has broken the advice he has been, in many cases, the architect of delivering.”
Former Conservative MP David Lidington, who was de facto deputy PM under Theresa May, was among those saying the news raised serious questions.
He told BBC Newsnight: “There’s clearly serious questions that No 10 are going to have to address not least because the readiness of members of the public to follow government guidance more generally is going to be affected by this sort of story.”
And Sir Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, called for Mr Cummings to quit over the allegations, telling Sky: “That looks like it’s in real breach of the rules, and when millions of people have sacrificed so much in order to stop the spread of coronavirus.
“People have not seen their loved ones, they’ve had to cancel weddings, they’ve not been able to go to the funerals of their closest relatives. It looks quite outrageous that the Prime Minister’s closest adviser has done this, and frankly if that turns out to be the case he must go… he should either resign, or the Prime Minister should sack him.”
Durham Constabulary said in a statement on Friday that officers contacted the owners of a property in County Durham on March 31, more than a week after the lockdown had been imposed by the PM.
Downing Street previously confirmed that Mr Cummings had started displaying coronavirus symptoms “over the weekend” of March 28 and 29.
Police said: “On Tuesday, March 31, our officers were made aware of reports that an individual had travelled from London to Durham and was present at an address in the city.
“Officers made contact with the owners of that address who confirmed that the individual in question was present and was self-isolating in part of the house.
“In line with national policing guidance, officers explained to the family the arrangements around self-isolation guidelines and reiterated the appropriate advice around essential travel.”
Mr Johnson introduced the UK lockdown a few days earlier with a speech on March 23 when he gave “a very simple instruction – you must stay at home”.
The rules stated that people would only be allowed to leave the house for limited purposes. These were shopping for basics, one form of exercise a day, travelling to and from work, but only where absolutely necessary, and medical needs.
Reinforcing the message, Mr Johnson said people should not meet family members who do not live with them. The rule stated: “You should not be visiting family members who do not live in your home. You should keep in touch with them using phone or video calls.”
Only in exceptional circumstances were people allowed to attend relatives’ addresses; for example, to drop off food or medicine to their door.
Even now the lockdown rules have been relaxed slightly, visiting friends or family in their own homes is still off limits. The current guidance states: “As with before, you cannot visit friends and family in their homes.”
The Government guidance also said: “We are advising those who are at increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus (Covid-19) to be particularly stringent in following social distancing measures. This group includes those who are aged 70 or older (regardless of medical conditions).”
It added: “If you are showing coronavirus symptoms, or if you or any of your household are self-isolating, you should stay at home – this is critical to staying safe and saving lives.”
Mr Cummings and his wife, Mary Wakefield, an editor at the Spectator, last month gave a detailed account of how they coped under lockdown while having the symptoms of coronavirus.
Writing in the magazine, Ms Wakefield does not say where they were during quarantine, but adds: “After the uncertainty of the bug itself, we emerged from quarantine into almost comical uncertainty of London lockdown.”