LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s closest aide refused to resign on Monday, saying he had done nothing wrong by driving 250 miles from London to access childcare when Britons were being told to stay at home to fight COVID-19.
Dominic Cummings has faced calls to quit from lawmakers, Church of England bishops, police officers and scientists over his trip to County Durham, northern England, which they said had damaged citizens’ trust in public health messaging.
“I did what I thought was the right thing to do,” Cummings said during an extraordinary televised grilling in the rose garden at 10 Downing Street, Johnson’s official residence.
“No, I have not offered to resign. No, I have not considered it,” Cummings said.
Johnson’s decision to stand by a man on whom he depends as his main strategist has led to his own judgment being questioned, with critics saying the episode signals that the normal rules do not apply to the people in charge.
“I do regret the confusion and the anger and the pain that people feel … That’s why I wanted people to understand exactly what had happened,” Johnson told a later news conference. “I do not believe that anybody in Number 10 has done anything to undermine our messaging.”
However, that was precisely what scientists and public health experts said both men had done.
“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,” said Stephen Reicher, a behavioural scientist on an advisory panel, on Twitter.
With a death toll of around 43,000, Britain is Europe’s worst-hit country and the government had already been under pressure over its handling of the pandemic before the Cummings story broke on Friday.
With a growing number of lawmakers from his own Conservative Party defying him by urging Cummings to quit, Johnson asked his trusted aide, who normally stays behind the scenes, to explain himself in public.
The choice of the Downing Street garden as the venue underscored Cummings’ importance to Johnson, whom he helped to secure Britain’s exit from the European Union in a 2016 referendum and later helped to win power.
Sitting at a desk on the grass for an hour, Cummings answered questions from reporters on issues as detailed as whether he stopped for petrol or toilet breaks during his 400-km journey.
Asked what message he had for Durham residents angry that he risked spreading the virus in their community, he said he would advise them not to believe everything they read in the newspapers.
He said he undertook the trip after learning Johnson had tested positive for the new coronavirus. Cummings’ wife was already ill and he feared if he too fell ill neither parent would be strong enough to care for their son.
He said he decided they should go and stay in an isolated cottage on his father’s farm so that his 17-year-old niece could look after his son if necessary. Cummings fell ill while there, as did his son who briefly went to hospital.
He said he had not tried to find an alternative childcare option in London.
Quizzed about a 30-mile drive he took with his wife and son from the family farm to a beauty spot, Barnard Castle, he said his eyesight had been affected by his illness and they wanted to check he would be able to undertake the journey back to London.
Asked whether he thought this explanation was plausible, Johnson swerved, saying it was plausible that Cummings’ eyesight had been affected by COVID-19 as he himself had noticed he needed glasses since recovering from the disease.
(Additional reporting by Alistair Smout and Paul Sandle; Editing by Timothy Heritage)