British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is trying to brush aside a growing scandal involving a top political assistant that threatens to undermine the government’s COVID-19 strategy and dent Mr. Johnson’s once-surging popularity.
On Monday, Mr. Johnson stood by the beleaguered aide, Dominic Cummings, who has admitted that he travelled more than 400 kilometres north of London to his father’s farm on March 27, just days after the government put the country into a near total lockdown. Mr. Cummings said he made the trip with his wife after they both developed symptoms of the disease. They took their four-year-old son with them so that relatives could look after the child while they self-isolated in a house nearby. The family drove back to London on April 13.
“My conclusion is that I think he acted reasonably, legally and with integrity and with care for his family and for others,” Mr. Johnson said during a news conference. Mr. Johnson added that Mr. Cummings was doing what he thought was best for his family and he had not broken any lockdown rules. “Reasonable people may disagree about some of the decisions that he took, but I don’t think reasonable people can disagree about what was going through his head at the time and the motivations for those decisions,” Mr. Johnson said.
His comments were made shortly after Mr. Cummings offered a detailed explanation of the journey in an attempt to quell mounting calls for him to resign. During a news conference at Downing Street, Mr. Cummings insisted the family had no other option but to seek help from relatives and they had not come in contact with members of the public. He also dismissed reports that they had visited a nearby castle. They drove to the castle just to test whether Mr. Cummings’s vision had been impaired by the illness before deciding he could see well enough to drive the whole distance home, he said.
Mr. Cummings offered no regrets or apologies for his actions and insisted the lockdown rules provided exemptions for people in his situation. “I think in all circumstances I behaved reasonably and legally,” he said. “I can understand that some people will argue I should have stayed at home in London … I understand the intense hardship and sacrifice the entire country has gone through. However, I respectfully disagree.”
Under the near-total lockdown, people were told to stay home unless they had a reasonable excuse to go out, such as to provide care to a vulnerable person.
The scandal couldn’t have come at a worse time for Mr. Johnson, who has been enjoying a remarkable political honeymoon since his Conservatives swept to power in December with an overwhelming majority. His popularity has gone up since the election and it soared during the early stages of the pandemic in March.
But in recent weeks the Prime Minister has faced criticism over his handling of the outbreak, especially as the country’s death toll closes in on 40,000, the highest in Europe. There has been confusion over how the lockdown will be lifted and anger at the rising number of people dying in care homes. Compounding Mr. Johnson’s troubles has been the impressive performance of the new Labour Party Leader Sir Keir Starmer, a former Crown prosecutor whose tough questioning of Mr. Johnson in Parliament has already forced the Prime Minister to backtrack on a fee the government planned to impose on immigrant health care workers.
Mr. Cummings’s conduct has put even more pressure on Mr. Johnson. Mr. Cummings is a key adviser to the Prime Minister and helped engineer the Conservatives’ election victory. He has also been an architect of the government’s Brexit policy but he often ruffles feathers with an abrasive management style.
More than 20 Conservative members of Parliament have called for Mr. Cummings to resign and some public-health experts have said his actions sabotaged efforts to encourage people to stay home. “The statement from Cummings really only reinforced his clear disregard for public-health guidance,” said Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton. Even a group of Church of England bishops turned on Mr. Johnson, saying over the weekend that his defence of Mr. Cummings “was an insult to all those who have made such sacrifices to ensure the safety of others.”
Mr. Johnson did offer some regret for the scandal. On Monday, he said that he wanted Mr. Cummings to provide the public with a full explanation because “I do regret the confusion and the anger and the pain that people feel.” When asked repeatedly about Mr. Cummings’s decisions, Mr. Johnson replied: “People will have to make up their own minds.”
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