London (CNN)Boris Johnson’s embattled chief aide has refused to apologize for driving across England during lockdown, amid a scandal over his movements that has overshadowed the UK government’s coronavirus response.
“I don’t regret what I did,” Dominic Cummings told reporters on Monday after Downing Street took the extraordinary step of putting the special adviser in front of the media to respond to the saga.
Cummings was repeatedly pressed to say sorry to the British people for traveling 260 miles across England and staying at a house on his parents’ property, at a time when the public was being urged not to leave their homes.
But he said that he thought making the journey was “the best thing to do,” and blamed media reports for creating “a very bad atmosphere” around his London home.
And he insisted that another drive he made to the town of Barnard Castle, several miles from his parents’ home, was so that he could test his eyesight and make sure he was healthy enough to then drive back to London — an explanation that was immediately questioned by opposition politicians.
Cummings’ journey has sparked a scandal in Britain that has clouded Johnson’s attempts to deal with his country’s coronavirus outbreak.
The aide said he did not ask the Prime Minister about his decision to travel outside of London beforehand. When asked whether he should have checked with Johnson before making his journey, Cummings said: “I don’t know … maybe I should have.” He added that he has not offered to resign since the scandal erupted.
Hours later, Johnson told reporters he was informed in a “brief conversation” of his adviser’s whereabouts back in April.
“What I think did happen was while I was ill and about to get a lot sicker, we had a brief conversation in which I think Dominic Cummings mentioned where he was,” the Prime Minister said.
“At that particular stage I had a lot on my plate and really didn’t focus on the matter until these stories started to emerge in the last few days,” he added.
The Prime Minister has been under intense pressure from across the political spectrum to sack Cummings,
the enigmatic aide often portrayed as the brains behind his premiership and populist message, after it emerged he made the journey to the north of England while his wife was sick with coronavirus symptoms in late March.
Johnson was, at the time, urging British people to “stay at home” and instructing them to self-isolate if they had been exposed to symptoms. Lawmakers across the political spectrum have said Cummings’ actions undermine those rules and imply that Johnson is allowing his allies to act in a way the public are not allowed to.
But the Prime Minister has stood by his ally, saying on Sunday that he had “no alternative” but to make the journey and insisting he acted “responsibly, legally and with integrity.”
He has been steadfast in his support for Cummings, saying Monday he did not “believe that anybody in Number 10 has done anything to undermine” the government’s coronavirus response.
Johnson however expressed regret over the travel controversy, and “the confusion and the anger and the pain that people feel.”
‘Painful to watch’
A central charge of the government’s critics, which include several lawmakers within Johnson’s Conservative party, is that Cummings was allowed to interpret the rules as he saw fit when the public was not given the same leeway.
They have argued that his actions undermine the government’s lockdown, and violate Johnson’s repeated message that people must stay at home to “save lives and protect the NHS.”
But Cummings claimed that “the rules made clear that if you are dealing with small children there can be exceptional circumstances.” The guidance urges people to self-isolate in one place if sick with symptoms, and stresses that parents of young children should “keep following this advice to the best of your ability,” adding: “However, we are aware that not all these measures will be possible.”
“I know that millions of people in this country have been suffering, thousands have died, many are angry about what they have seen in the media about my actions,” Cummings said at the outset of an unprecedented statement in Downing Street’s Rose Garden.
He went on to walk the press through details of his two-week trip to Durham, but did little to appease critics.
Cummings told reporters:
- He has not offered to resign over the scandal, and has not considered doing so.
- He repeatedly criticized the media for their coverage of his role within Johnson’s government and their reporting of the scandal.
- He did not ask Johnson whether he could travel to his parents’ property beforehand, but told him “at some point” later.
- He stayed at a separate cottage on his parents’ land that was isolated from his parents’ own house.
- At the end of their stay, he then drove for around half an hour to Barnard Castle, and left the car while there, in order to test whether his eyesight was impaired.
“This is actually painful to watch,” Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeted. “He clearly broke the rules, the Prime Minister has failed to act in the National interest. He should have never allowed this situation with a member of his staff.”
“There cannot be one rule for Dominic Cummings and another for the British people,” the opposition Labour Party said in a statement before his press conference.
“Forget the personalities. The primary duty of any government in a deadly pandemic is to give its citizens clear public health advice. Dominic Cummings just confused the entire nation,” shadow justice secretary David Lammy added.
Arguably the most confounding aspect of Cummings’ defense was his rationale for driving to Barnard Castle. “Sorry this just doesn’t add up. You’re so sick you worry that your eyesight is impaired yet you drive miles with your child in the car to check whether you can drive further? A clear nonsense. Patent nonsense,” Labour MP Chris Bryant wrote on Twitter.
John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, tweeted: “Folks, I say this in all sincerity and as an important road safety issue. If you’re feeling unwell and your eyesight may be impaired do not drive your vehicle to test your ability to drive. It’s not a wise move.”
When Johnson was asked on Monday why his aide took a 60 mile trip to test his eyesight, Johnson replied: “I’m finding that I have to wear spectacles for the first time in years.” He then held up a pair of reading glass and said it was “very plausible that eyesight can be a problem associated with coronavirus.”
Cummings’ appearance in front of cameras was a remarkable occurrence that demonstrates his importance within Johnson’s administration.
But it remains unclear whether it has allowed the government to draw a line under the issue, particularly given the outstanding questions that emerged from his statement.
“My heart goes out to every parent making tough choices during this crisis but I’m genuinely struggling to understand why circumstances Dominic Cummings found himself in were exceptional, yet not the circumstances that saw 13yr old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab die alone in hospital,” Green Party leader Caroline Lucas said.
The UK has suffered the most deadly coronavirus outbreak in Europe, with more than 36,000 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
The country may be in its final week under the current phase of lockdown. From June 1, the government will look to lift certain restrictions as it paves a way back towards normality.