Johnson Aide Faces More Pressure as Lockdown Reports Persist

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23 maj 2020, 12.24

(Bloomberg) --

Boris Johnson’s chief adviser faced further calls to resign, hours after a minister said he had the full support of the prime minister, as fresh reports suggested he broke the government’s coronavirus lockdown rules more than once.

Dominic Cummings traveled more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) from his London home at the end of March at a time when he was supposed to be self-isolating. He went to Durham with his wife and child to seek support from family after his wife contracted Covid-19 and he began showing symptoms, the PM’s office said in a statement Saturday. U.K. citizens were under orders not to travel, and to stay at home if they displayed symptoms.

“The prime minister knew that he was quite properly staying put in one place with his family, which is the right thing to do,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said at Saturday’s daily briefing. “The prime minister gives Mr. Cummings his full support.”

But another report from the Mirror and Guardian newspapers, published hours after the briefing, suggested they had evidence that Cummings breached the rules again in April -- returning to Durham after spending time in London. Cummings told the PM’s office the latest report is “totally false,” the Telegraph reported.

Hours after a succession of cabinet ministers declared their support, the latest furor over Cummings’s whereabouts spawned new outrage from opposition politicians, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party have written to Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary and Britain’s top civil servant, demanding an inquiry.

The episode looks set to overshadow Johnson’s latest push to communicate how he plans to move the country out of lockdown. A new test and trace system, with 25,000 contract tracers, is set to launch at the end of this week, while the government is planning an announcement on schools and may give an update on non-essential retailers.

A statement from a No. 10 official, released at about the same time as the latest Guardian and Mirror reports, played up the test and trace plans and noted that everyone will need to play their part.

“It will be possible for there to be a targeted lockdown for a small number of people,” the spokesperson said. “For this to be effective, everyone will need to stay alert and play their part to control the virus and save lives.”

Doing the Right Thing

At Saturday’s press briefing, Shapps and Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries were battered with questions about Cummings’s conduct.

Harries said that the key public health message is that people should self-isolate immediately if they have symptoms and stay in their homes, with the only exception being a safeguarding issue for children or adults.

“I behaved reasonably and legally,” Cummings told reporters outside his home earlier on Saturday after warning a gaggle of press to maintain social distancing. “It’s a question of doing the right thing. It’s not about what you guys think.”

Britons are beginning to chafe after two months of lockdowns in a country where fatalities from the virus have topped 36,000, the most outside of the U.S. Recent polls show support is waning for Johnson’s response to the virus.

And with the weather set to be fair across much of England on Sunday and on Monday’s public holiday, crowds will probably flock to parks and beaches. Enforcing social distancing rules in the light of Cummings’s situation looks set to be a challenge for authorities.

Divisive Character

Other high-profile officials caught violating the rules have paid a price. One of government’s top scientific advisers on the virus quit after admitting to quarantine breaches and Scotland’s chief medical offer resigned in April after making two trips to her second home, about an hour’s drive from her main home in Edinburgh.

Cummings is best known as the man who ran the successful referendum campaign to take the U.K. out of the European Union. He’s long been a lightning rod, making political enemies within the ruling Conservative party and without.

He’s credited with helping Johnson secure a landslide victory in December elections, giving the Tories a big enough majority to end a parliamentary stalemate and complete Brexit more than three years after the referendum.

(Adds latest denial from Cummings in fourth paragraph, government test and trace plans in sixth)

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