World / Politics

Boris Johnson gambles to save aide who flouted U.K. lockdown rules

Bloomberg

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson put his own authority on the line as he fought to save his most senior aide, Dominic Cummings, in the face of growing demands to fire the adviser for allegedly breaking lockdown rules.

Johnson said he understood why Cummings had traveled more than 250 miles (402 kilometers) to seek care for his 4-year-old child when he was supposedly self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms. The premier said that while he understood public anger and confusion, Cummings’s actions were “sensible and defensible.”

“When he had no alternative, I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent and I do not mark him down for that,” Johnson said at a news conference from 10 Downing Street on Sunday. “I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly and legally and with integrity, and with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of the virus and saving lives.”

Cummings’s movements have sparked a storm of criticism, with politicians across parties calling for him to lose his job. On Sunday, Conservative MP and Brexit campaigner Steve Baker led the revolt from within the ruling Conservative Party, saying Johnson would lose precious political capital if he failed to fire Cummings.

But the prime minister said he had held “extensive, face-to-face conversations” with his aide and concluded his actions were fair.

The leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, said Johnson’s decision was an insult to the sacrifices made by the British people since the country was put on lockdown in late March.

“This was a test of the Prime Minister and he has failed it,” Starmer said. “The Prime Minister’s actions have undermined confidence in his own public health message at this crucial time.”

The controversy comes at a highly sensitive moment for Johnson, with Britons beginning to chafe after two months of lockdown in a country where fatalities from the virus have topped 36,000. That gives Britain the worst death toll in Europe and the highest in the world after the U.S.

Recent polls also show support is waning for Johnson’s response to the pandemic. By backing Cummings so publicly, Johnson is taking a major gamble, given how emotive the subject is for the public who have been banned from normal social contact outside their homes since March 23.

Yet the fact the premier has shown such overwhelming support to his aide demonstrates how vital Cummings clearly is to Johnson’s administration. The risk now is that Johnson will be the one paying a political price.

Speaking at the government’s daily news conference, the prime minister faced a relentless barrage of questions from journalists over his adviser. The central charge against Cummings is one of hypocrisy, with one rule for the governing elite and another for the rest of the country. Johnson took the issue head on. “As far as I can see, he stuck to the rules,” he said.

Official guidance is “clear” that people with particular child care difficulties do not need to observe the same strict lockdown rules, Johnson suggested. “It’s absolutely responsible of Dominic Cummings to see the risk to his family and to see the risk to his child and to take steps to avert it.”

Asked whether he understood why the public may feel angry over a sense of double standards, Johnson said he accepted the point.

“I can totally get why people might feel so confused and, as you say, so offended by the idea that it was one thing for people here and another thing for others,” he said. “Having looked at what happened and having looked at his intention and what he was trying to do for the good of his family, I really think most people will understand what he was doing.”

Johnson’s defense of Cummings at the news conference did little to quell criticism from within his own ranks, with Conservative lawmaker Paul Maynard calling Cummings’s actions “utterly indefensible” after Johnson’s remarks.

Three scientific advisers to the government also strongly condemned Johnson. In a tweet, Stephen Reicher, who sits on the government’s advisory committee of behavioral scientists, said Johnson had “trashed” the advice they had given on how to ensure adherence with lockdown measures. Susan Michie and Robert West, two other members of the committee, said they agreed.

Concerning the wider coronavirus response, Johnson confirmed a plan to reopen schools on June 1, with selected year groups going back to class.

“In line with the approach being taken in many other countries, we want to start getting our children into the classroom in a way that is as safe and manageable as possible,” he said.

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