Boris Johnson apologised on Monday evening for “the confusion and the anger and the pain that people have been feeling” over his adviser’s decision to take a trip across England that drew angry claims he had breached Britain’s coronavirus lockdown rules.
Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s most influential aide, defended his actions in an unprecedented press conference from the garden of 10 Downing Street on Monday afternoon. He said he acted “reasonably and legally” in taking the 264-mile journey from his home in London to the property of his parents in the north-east of England to get childcare support for his four-year-old son.
The row threatened to overshadow Mr Johnson’s announcement of a further easing to Britain’s lockdown restrictions. Having announced some primary school pupils will be able to return to their classrooms from the start of next month, Mr Johnson announced plans to allow outdoor markets and car showrooms to reopen on June 1.
Other non-essential shops would be allowed to reopen on June 15, provided the premises met guidelines for restricting the spread of the virus, Mr Johnson added.
Questioned about the actions of Mr Cummings, the prime minister said: “I don’t think reasonable people can disagree with his motivations.” He said he did not believe the row over Mr Cummings had disrupted the government’s messaging, which warned people to stay at home to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed at the height of the pandemic in the UK.
“I do not believe that anybody in Number 10 has done anything to undermine our messaging,” Mr Johnson said.
Mr Cummings said he had no regrets about making the trip and insisted he had not broken the law or the spirit of the lockdown regulations because the rules allowed parents to exercise their own judgment if they had concerns over the welfare of children.
“The rules make clear that when dealing with small children that can be exceptional circumstances and I think that was exceptional circumstances,” he said.
“I do not regret what I did . . . I think what I did was actually reasonable in these circumstances.” Mr Cummings added that he interpreted the government’s regulations due to his situation. “In the circumstances, with a small child, it doesn’t go into lots of different circumstance and say what to do. There is no regulation covering the situation I found myself in.”
Mr Cummings said he and his wife decided to go to his parents’ farm to self-isolate after they feared they had contracted the disease. Although neither he nor his wife were ever tested, he said they were both sick with Covid-19 like symptoms.
Mr Cummings admitted that during his stay in the north-east he took a 30-minute drive to Barnard Castle, a local market town, to test his eyesight, which had been affected by the virus. He defended his actions in making the day trip, citing his wife’s concerns about his vision ahead of attempting the much longer return journey to London.
Faced with growing calls from Conservative MPs, senior clerics and scientists for him to be sacked on Sunday, Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings hope a line has now been drawn under the affair. Some Tory MPs fear the controversy is distracting the government from its efforts to fight coronavirus and kick start the economy.
Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, said the official had explained “how he followed the rules applicable to his family”, adding the cabinet was “totally focused on tackling Covid-19 and moving the country forward”.
Another senior cabinet minister said “deciding to take his family to a place of safety — and clearly maintaining social distancing with family nearby for their little one — is understandable and within the law . . . at the end of the day he didn’t break the law, as the local cops have said.”
Another member of the cabinet said: “I think Friday’s response bad and misjudged. He will still get grief but I think the judgment made by the PM will be more understood by constituents that are normally sympathetic to the PM but had been very irritated.”
An influential MP described Mr Cummings’ appearance as “just about OK” but noted he was “really stretching” public sentiment on how he acted during lockdown.
Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, said on Twitter: “Millions of people made sacrifices & kept to the rules. Cummings didn’t & should go. It’s that simple.”
Mr Cummings admitted that he had not consulted Mr Johnson on his decision to make the journey to the north-east. He added that he had not contemplated resigning but added it was “up to the prime minister” whether he would stay in his job.
“I am here to do the best I can for the government and change the country for the better,” he said.
Mr Johnson will now seek to shift the agenda back to further steps for rebooting the economy amid growing concerns over the damaging impact of the virus and the costs of emergency measures taken by the Treasury to help support companies and workers.
Responding to Mr Johnson’s announcement that retailers will be able to begin reopening next month, Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said: “We welcome the announcement of the government’s roadmap for reopening a broader range of shops next month, which provides much needed clarity on the route ahead.
“Safety is the fundamental concern for all retailers and they have been working hard to implement the necessary measures to operate safely over the past weeks. The industry stands ready to play its part in getting the economy moving again.”