Boris Johnson has come out in defence of Dominic Cummings, after his chief adviser was reported to have breached lockdown rules by travelling 264 miles from London soon after displaying symptoms of Covid-19.
The Guardian and Mirror newspapers reported that the police spoke to Mr Cummings — who lives in London — after he was spotted in Durham seven weeks ago and a member of the public told the authorities.
Downing Street insisted on Saturday that the journey had been essential for Mr Cummings to ensure he had childcare and that he had acted within the law.
At the time, the government had already ordered the public to stay at home and not to travel. “You should not be visiting family members who do not live in your home,” the guidance said. “The only exception is if they need help, such as having shopping or medication dropped off.”
A No 10 spokesman said: “Owing to his wife being infected with suspected coronavirus and the high likelihood that he would himself become unwell, it was essential for Dominic Cummings to ensure his young child could be properly cared for.
“At no stage was he or his family spoken to by the police about this matter, as is being reported. His actions were in line with coronavirus guidelines. Mr Cummings believes he behaved reasonably and legally.”
Durham police and crime commissioner Steve White said Mr Cummings had been “unwise” to travel to Durham during the lockdown.
“Given the whole ethos of the guidance and regulations was designed to reduce the spread, regardless of reason, by travelling to County Durham when known to be infected was most unwise”, he said in a statement.
Emerging from his London home on Saturday, Mr Cummings was asked by reporters whether his trip “looked good”, to which he replied: “Who cares about good looks. It’s a question of doing the right thing. It’s not about what you guys think.”
Labour responded to the Downing Street statement by saying: “The lockdown rules were very clear: if you or anyone in your household was suspected of having Covid-19 you must immediately self-isolate and not leave the house.
“However the prime minister’s chief adviser appears to believe that it is one rule for him and another for the British people.”
The Guardian reported that Mr Cummings was spotted near the gate of his parents’ home in Durham at around 5.45pm on April 5, five days after the complaint was made to the police. This was only one week after he started to self-isolate with symptoms of the virus, and around the same time that Mr Johnson came down with it.
A spokesman for Durham Constabulary said: “On Tuesday, March 31, our officers were made aware of reports that an individual had travelled from London to Durham and was present at an address in the city.”
He said officers made contact with the owners of the address who confirmed that the individual was present and self-isolating in part of the house.
“In line with national policing guidance, officers explained to the family the guidelines around self-isolation and reiterated the appropriate advice around essential travel.”
Mr Cummings, the former architect of the successful Vote Leave campaign in 2016, is a key adviser to Mr Johnson.
Senior Tories expressed dismay at the news, with one minister asking: “How can any government minister, or MP for that matter, ask the public to abide by the rules when the adviser closest to the prime minister so flagrantly ignores them? It’s hard to see how he can stay based on what we know.”
One Cabinet minister said: “What an idiot. It used to be said that no one is irreplaceable. I see it challenging for Dom to tough it out. Very lucky for him we are already in recess.”
Another Conservative MP suggested it was now too late for Downing Street to back down after voicing their initial support for Mr Cummings.
“If you back him for a week and then relent you just look weak and you may as well have gotten rid of him straight away,” the MP said.
However, a number of cabinet ministers publicly defended Mr Cummings’ actions on Saturday morning.
Writing on Twitter, Michael Gove, cabinet office minister, declared that “caring for your wife and child is not a crime”.
Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, said: “Taking care of your wife and young child is justifiable and reasonable, trying to score political points over it isn’t.”
One close friend of Mr Cummings said: “He isn’t remotely bothered by this story, it’s more fake news from the Guardian. There is zero chance of him resigning.”
Mary Wakefield, the wife of Mr Cummings, wrote an article last month in the Spectator about the couple coping with the lockdown: “Day in, day out for 10 days he lay doggo.” It did not mention his journey to northern England.
Breaking lockdown rules has already led to some high profile resignations.
Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist whose modelling led to the lockdown, quit as a member of the Sage scientific advisory group after the Daily Telegraph revealed he had been visited by his girlfriend.
Catherine Calderwood, chief medical officer for Scotland, was forced to resign after visiting her second home twice during the lockdown.