Dominic Cummings was facing a clamour for his resignation on Sunday evening, after Boris Johnson’s attempts to defend his closest adviser provoked a furious backlash.
The prime minister’s closest adviser faced renewed pressure to resign after ministers, MPs, scientific advisers and pro-Conservative newspapers called on the prime minister to sack him, following reports that he had broken the government’s restrictions on more than one occasion.
A joint investigation by the Guardian and Daily Mirror newspapers alleged Mr Cummings, architect of the Vote Leave campaign to take Britain out of the EU, had driven 264 miles from London with his ailing wife and young son to a family home in County Durham, where he was spotted on April 5.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street Sunday press conference, Mr Johnson said he had “extensive face-to-face conversations” with Mr Cummings about the journey from his London home to County Durham and had concluded that he had not broken lockdown restrictions.
“Though there have been many other allegations about what happened when he was in self-isolation and thereafter, some of them palpably false, 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,” he said.
But Mr Johnson did not address the allegation that Mr Cummings made a 30-mile trip from Durham to Barnard Castle with his family that would have contravened the lockdown. According to The Observer and Sunday Mirror newspapers, he was spotted in the market town on April 12.
The prime minister’s efforts to save his aide appeared to have failed. Support for Mr Cummings appeared to be spread thinly across the government and Conservative party. Following a barrage of supportive messages from cabinet ministers on Saturday, a notable silence on Sunday suggested that backing for the adviser was evaporating.
One member of the government said the prime minister’s press conference had made the situation worse. “Cummings is now doing real damage to the government and prime minister. Anyone else would have recognised that by now and would have resigned,” he said.
Another cabinet minister told a colleague on Sunday: “It’s hard to see how we can go on like this, expecting parents, teachers and the public to trust us when we bend the rules when it suits us. This lack of confidence will put lives in danger, and I worry we may never recover from this.”
A meeting of Mr Johnson’s cabinet on Monday is likely to be a flashpoint in this crisis. Ministers are expected to share their concerns with the prime minister and may urge him to sack the adviser.
Scientific advisers to the government also said they had lost faith in Mr Cummings. Stephen Reicher, a behavioural scientist, said on Sunday he had “trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control Covid-19”. Other medical professors retweeted his comment in agreement.
The Daily Mail, a pro-Conservative pro-Brexit newspaper that has supported Mr Johnson’s government, also called on Mr Cummings to resign or be sacked. In a front-page editorial, the paper asked: “What planet are they on?”
Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition, said Mr Johnson had “undermined confidence in his own public health message at this crucial time” and called for an inquiry into Mr Cummings’ actions.
“It is an insult to sacrifices made by the British people that Boris Johnson has chosen to take no action against Dominic Cummings. The public will be forgiven for thinking there is one rule for the prime minister’s closest adviser and another for the British people,” he said.
Several prominent Conservative MPs called for Mr Cummings to be sacked.
Steve Baker, an influential Brexit-supporting MP and former minister, wrote that Mr Cummings should go “before he does any more harm to the UK, the government, the prime minister, our institutions or the Conservative party”.
“It is time for Dom to resign so Boris can govern within the conventions and norms which will see us through,” he wrote in The Critic magazine.
Caroline Nokes, another former minister, said: “There cannot be one rule for most of us and wriggle room for others. My inbox is rammed with very angry constituents and I do not blame them. They have made difficult sacrifices over the course of the last nine weeks,” she tweeted.
Roger Gale, a longstanding Conservative MP, agreed. “There cannot be one law for the prime minister’s staff and another for everyone else. He has sent out completely the wrong message and his position is no longer tenable,” he tweeted.
Other Tory MPs who have called on Mr Cummings to resign include Simon Hoare, chair of the Northern Ireland select committee; and backbenchers Peter Bone, Craig Whittaker and Damian Collins.
One member of the government described Mr Johnson’s press conference as “an utter shambles that will do little to settle the febrile mood among MPs and the public”.
The prime minister’s statement was criticised in a post on the official Twitter account of the UK Civil Service. An anonymous mandarin wrote “arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?” The tweet was deleted after 10 minutes.
Mike Barton, the former chief constable of Durham police, said it was clear Mr Cummings had broken the rules and added he could not think of a “worse example of a breach of the lockdown rules”.
Mr Cummings also faces a police investigation, with Robin Lees, a retired teacher, reporting him to Durham police for a suspected breach of the lockdown rules.
Boris Johnson announces UK lockdown. All non-essential travel is banned and those with Covid-19 symptoms are ordered to self-isolate for 14 days
Downing Street announces Mr Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock have been diagnosed with coronavirus. Mr Cummings is seen running out of Downing Street
Mr Cummings develops coronavirus symptoms over the weekend
Downing Street announces Mr Cummings is self-isolating
Mr Cummings allegedly drives to his family’s property in County Durham, according to the Guardian and Daily Mirror. Durham Police are informed by Mr Cummings’ family that he is staying at the property. No 10 has denied the police spoke to Mr Cummings or anyone in his family
Mr Cummings is spotted by a resident in the garden of his parents’ house in County Durham, according to the Guardian and Mirror. The prime minister is admitted to hospital as his coronavirus symptoms worsen. Mr Cummings’ wife later said: ‘Dom was beginning to feel better’ on this day
Mr Cummings is reportedly spotted at Barnard Castle, a market town 30 miles from Durham city. He is allegedly seen walking along the river Tees with his family
Mr Cummings is photographed in London, walking up Downing Street
Mr Cummings is spotted back in County Durham at Houghall Woods, according to another witness quoted by the Guardian and Daily Mirror. Residents said he commented on the ‘lovely’ bluebells