Dominic Cummings controversy: The unanswered questions
Despite backing by Boris Johnson, key details about aide’s breaching of lockdown remain murky
Dominic Cummings remains in his position as Boris Johnson’s de facto chief of staff after the British prime minister gave him his backing following revelations he travelled from London to Durham, northern England, during the UK’s coronavirus lockdown in late March.
While Johnson, speaking at the Downing Street press conference, said his most senior adviser “acted responsibly, legally and with integrity”, there remain questions about Cummings’s decision to make the initial journey, along with the further allegations levelled against the 48-year-old.
Why did he need to go 420km north?
The argument pushed by Number 10 is that Cummings, fearing there would be no one to look after his four-year-old son if he and his wife became ill with coronavirus at the same time, travelled to be near his family in County Durham to seek childcare.
Yet Labour shadow policing minister Sarah Jones said, in an interview on Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, she knew of “single mothers who have had Covid-19, when their child has had to stay with them” and neighbours and volunteers had to “chip-in food so they can eat”.
Given the sacrifices made by others, critics have queried why Cummings, as someone involved in setting the lockdown rules, could not call on any friends or family in London to assist him in adhering to the restrictions.
Did he have Covid-19 when travelling?
Johnson tested positive for coronavirus on March 26th and Number 10 confirmed that Cummings developed symptoms over the weekend of March 28-29th.
He was seen running out of Downing Street on March 27th, shortly after it was confirmed publicly that Johnson had the virus.
On Friday, a statement issued by Durham Constabulary suggested Cummings’s father had confirmed his son was self-isolating in the northeast as of March 31st.
Given the average incubation period for Covid-19 is five days, but can be as long as 14, the four-day gap between the two dates suggests he could have been asymptomatic while travelling.
Did he have to stop en route to Durham?
Driving 420km across the country with a four-year-old and a sick wife in the car, who was already displaying Covid-19 symptoms, Cummings might well have needed to stop for a break.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps was asked during the Sunday morning media round about whether the family took a pit stop, but said he did not know the answer.
But he argued Cummings was a “stickler” for social-distancing rules, indicating he would have abided by them during any stop-off.
The cabinet minister told Sophy Ridge: “I saw a clip yesterday of him asking journalists to be spaced two metres apart, so I know he is a stickler for those rules . . . so I’m sure that they took all the necessary precautions.”
Did he go on a day trip to Barnard Castle?
The Observer and Sunday Mirror reported that an eyewitness – Robin Lees, a 71-year-old former teacher – saw Cummings with his wife and child at Barnard Castle, a popular tourist spot 50km from Durham, on April 12th.
Downing Street has not specifically addressed this allegation, but Shapps suggested the Easter Sunday outing, if it took place, “would have been outside the 14-day period” for self-isolation.
Government advice is that anyone suffering from coronavirus symptoms must quarantine for seven days after contracting the virus.
And guidance issued by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the College of Policing in early April advised officers not to punish people for using their cars to drive “a reasonable distance” for exercise.
Why is Johnson standing by him?
Johnson said he thought his aide acted in the best interests of his child, acting in a way “any parent would frankly understand”.
But Tory MPs have questioned the Conservative leader’s judgment in backing him, complaining they remain “unconvinced” by the PM’s defence.
Former minister Paul Maynard said Cummings’ case seemed “utterly indefensible”.
It is unclear how much Johnson knew about Cummings’s trip north or whether he approved it.
Was his son cared for by family while in Durham?
Cummings’s defence for his actions, along with the PM’s justification for keeping him on, hinges on the belief he and his wife could require childcare if they both became unwell.
In No 10’s Saturday statement setting out what went on, it made no reference to his son being looked after by family members, only that Cummings’s sister “shopped for the family and left everything outside” the property they were staying in.
Was the childcare caveat to the “Stay at home” message made clear in government messaging?
Health secretary Matt Hancock said the government’s “Stay at home” guidance was an instruction, “not a request” at a briefing on April 3rd.
But deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries had said at a daily Downing Street press briefing on March 24th that a small child could be considered “vulnerable” and therefore provide exemptions from the stringent rules if their carers became ill.
Dr Harries said: “Although we are encouraging everybody to stay in their own households . . . clearly if you have adults who are unable to look after a small child, that is an exceptional circumstance.”
For those who were listening intently – and Cummings seems to have been among those who were – a loosening of the restrictions was seemingly confirmed.
Who is right: No 10 or the police?
A row between Downing Street and Durham Constabulary over police involvement during the episode refused to abate over the weekend.
No 10 denied, as was first reported, that police had contacted Cummings’s family following a report he had travelled to stay near family.
The government’s denial caused the force to put out a fresh statement on Saturday standing by its earlier assertions, stating that officers had a conversation with the Leave campaigner’s father after he requested to speak to them.
But Shapps told the BBC the conversation, while initiated by Robert Cummings, did not touch on the whereabouts of the prime minister’s aide.
Speaking to the Andrew Marr programme, he said: “For one thing, the father contacted the police, not the other way round.
“And secondly, it was about an unrelated matter, which I think quite rightly they don’t want to go into, about security, so it’s not the case that the police made contact without any reason to discuss this specific matter.” – PA