Coronavirus: No respite for UK's PM Boris Johnson and aide accused of breaking lockdown rules

Dominic Cummings is accused of flouting the coronavirus lockdown by driving 400km from London. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (REUTERS) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced mutiny in his party and fury across Britain on Monday (May 25) for refusing to sack his closest aide, Mr Dominic Cummings, who is accused of flouting the coronavirus lockdown by driving 400km from London.

Defending one of Britain's most powerful men, Mr Johnson said at the weekend Mr Cummings acted "responsibly and legally and with integrity" by heading from London to northern England with his son and his wife, who was ill with Covid-19 symptoms.

Many believe that was hypocritical given the government's mantra at the time to avoid such movements.

"What planet are they on?" asked the Daily Mail, an influential right-wing paper usually supportive of Mr Johnson and his adviser, who helped the prime minister to power and to secure Britain's exit from the European Union.

Mr Cummings was due to make a public statement and to answer questions later on Monday, ITV and Sky News reported. A Downing Street spokeswoman declined to comment.

With a death toll around 43,000, Britain is the worst-hit country in Europe and the government was already under pressure over its handling of the pandemic.

Scientists and lawmakers said the Cummings furore would make it harder to ensure the public kept complying with official social distancing guidance.

"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 behavioural scientist Stephen Reicher, one of a panel that advises the government.

About 20 Conservative lawmakers defied Mr Johnson by calling publicly for Mr Cummings to quit or be sacked.

They and others reported being inundated with mail from constituents who had followed the guidance and now felt there was one rule for people close to Johnson and another for everyone else.

"RISIBLE DEFENCE"

The acting Durham police commissioner, Mr Steve White, said he had asked the area's chief constable to "establish the facts concerning any potential breach of the law" and said the case was "a major issue of public interest and trust".

In an unusual outpouring, more than a dozen Church of England bishops publicly condemned Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings.

"The PM's risible defence of Cummings is an insult to all those who have made such sacrifices to ensure the safety of others," said Mr Johne Inge, the bishop of Worcester, on Twitter.

The decision by Mr Johnson to keep Mr Cummings contrasts with the cases of Scotland's chief medical officer and a senior epidemiologist who advised the government, both of whom resigned after admitting they had broken lockdown rules.

With a death toll around 43,000, Britain is the worst-hit country in Europe and the government was already under pressure over its handling of the pandemic.

Conservative lawmakers reported being contacted by outraged constituents who had made sacrifices during the lockdown, including staying away from dying relatives.

"I got swamped with even more e-mails from people who don't have a political axe to grind and who say... 'It looks as though it's one rule for them and one for us. Why should we now abide by government guidance?'," said lawmaker Tim Loughton.

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Mr Johnson's Downing Street office said Mr Cummings made the journey to his parents' property in County Durham to ensure that his four-year-old son could be properly cared for by relatives if he fell ill along with his wife.

At the time, the government's instruction to anyone showing symptoms was not to leave the house for 14 days.

The architect of the successful Brexit campaign in 2016, Mr Cummings, 48, is a polarising figure, accused by many who wanted to stay in the EU of using inflammatory tactics and playing fast and loose with the facts.

Ominously for him and for Mr Johnson, many of the lawmakers and newspaper columnists calling for him to be sacked were Brexit supporters, not his usual critics.

Coming home late on Sunday, Mr Cummings was harangued by neighbours, including a woman who broke down in tears as she leaned out of her window and described the hardship she and her family had endured during the lockdown.

In contrast to Mr Cummings, Scotland's chief medical officer and a senior epidemiologist who advised the government both resigned after admitting they had broken lockdown rules.

A small number of Conservative lawmakers voiced support for Mr Cummings, describing his predicament as a trial-by-media.

"I have lots of questions to be answered before I pass judgment or comment," said lawmaker Lee Anderson. "I suspect there will be a few more twists to this story over the next few days."

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