Government science adviser savages Boris Johnson over defence of Dominic Cummings

A ‘debacle’ over Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham during lockdown has ‘fatally undermined’ Boris Johnson’s fight against coronavirus, one of the Government’s scientific experts has claimed. 

Professor Stephen Reicher, who is a member of the Government’s advisory group on behavioural science which feeds into SAGE, said the actions of the PM’s top aide would now mean members of the public will question the rules they have been told to follow. 

He said the result of ‘undermining adherence to the rules’ will be that ‘more people are going to die’. 

The comments came as Mr Johnson is facing an increasingly furious backlash from ministers, Tory MPs and even bishops after he attempted to mount an extraordinary defence of Mr Cummings.

Mr Johnson has effectively staked his political reputation on trying to protect Mr Cummings but the calls for the adviser to be sacked continue to grow. 

One cabinet minister claimed the PM had ‘sacrificed his own credibility’ to ‘save’ Mr Cummings and that he is ‘burning away his personal brand’.  

At a dramatic press conference in Downing Street last night, the Prime Minister claimed his chief aide had acted ‘responsibly, legally and with integrity’ while making a controversial 260-mile trip from London to Durham during lockdown. 

Mr Johnson insisted Mr Cummings had ‘followed the instincts of every father’ by driving to his parents’ farm after his wife developed symptoms of coronavirus. 

But he refused to deny that while in the North East, Mr Cummings had also driven 30 miles to go for a walk in the countryside in an apparent second lockdown breach.

And he failed to say whether he had given Mr Cummings permission for the Durham trip – or offer any apology for his most senior aide’s behaviour. 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson this morning tried to assuage Tory and public anger as he insisted ‘at every stage Dominic Cummings followed and his family followed the guidance’. 

But police chiefs said the row over Mr Cummings meant that enforcing locking is now ‘dead in the water’.  

Boris Johnson is facing a mounting backlash over his defence of Dominic Cummings. The under fire PM was seen jogging with his dog Dilyn near Lambeth Palace in central London this morning

Psychology professor Stephen Reicher (pictured) said the Prime Minister’s defence of Mr Cummings had threatened the UK’s fight against coronavirus

Mr Cummings (pictured today in London) has sparked a political firestorm after travelling 270 miles from London to Durham (above) to see his parents during lockdown

The unanswered questions in the Dominic Cummings row

1. How many ministers, including the PM, knew Mr Cummings had travelled to Durham and was self-isolating there?

2. Did Mr Cummings ask for advice or permission from No 10 before he travelled?

3. Why did Mr Cummings insist neither he nor his family had been spoken to by Durham Police, when his father had contacted the force himself?

4. Can Mr Cummings explain where he was on April 12, when he was allegedly spotted at Barnard Castle?

5. Can Mr Cummings provide details of his whereabouts on April 19, when he was allegedly seen in Houghall Woods?

6. What reason can Mr Cummings provide for allegedly travelling to Durham for a second time after his return to London, given he and his wife had recovered from their symptoms?

7. Why didn’t another family member near Mr Cummings’s London home care for their child when his wife displayed virus symptoms?

8. How many times did Mr Cummings travel between London and the North East during lockdown?

Prof Reicher told ITV’s Good Morning Britain programme today: ‘If you look at the research it shows the reason why people observed lockdown was not for themselves, it wasn’t because they were personally at risk, they did it for the community, they did it because of a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’.

‘If you give the impression there’s one rule for them and one rule for us you fatally undermine that sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ and you undermine adherence to the forms of behaviour which have got us through this crisis.’

He added: ‘The real issue here is that because of these actions, because of undermining trust in the Government, because of undermining adherence to the rules that we all need to follow, people are going to die. More people are going to die.’

Mr Williamson said this morning that it was his ‘understanding’ from Mr Johnson that Mr Cummings did not break the law in making the trip to Durham during lockdown. 

He told BBC Breakfast: ‘(The Prime Minister) has been absolutely categorically assured that both Dominic Cummings and his family both followed the guidance and also followed the rules…

‘The guidance is incredibly extensive and at the heart of that guidance is always the issue of safeguarding children and making sure that children are always absolutely protected.

‘My understanding is from what the Prime Minister said yesterday… is that at every stage Dominic Cummings followed and his family followed the guidance and at no stage did Dominic Cummings or his family break the law.’

Mr Williamson said Mr Cummings should not resign ‘because he has made it clear that he’s broken no rules and he’s broken no laws’.

But there is growing fury among Tory MPs with 16 now having called for Mr Cummings to be sacked. 

Tim Loughton, the former children’s minister, became the latest to break cover as he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I was hoping that we were going to get some answers either from Dominic Cummings or then from the Prime Minister when he took on that press conference yesterday afternoon.

Timeline of Cummings’ lockdown row 

March 23: As the coronavirus crisis escalates, the UK is placed into lockdown with strict limitations on travel.

The Government guidelines state: ‘You should not be visiting family members who do not live in your home.’

Those in a household with symptoms must ‘stay at home and not leave the house’ for up to 14 days. 

March 27: Both Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock test positive for coronavirus, while chief medical officer Chris Whitty says he has symptoms of the disease and is self-isolating.

March 30: Downing Street confirms Mr Cummings is suffering from coronavirus symptoms and is self-isolating.

March 31: Durham police are ‘made aware of reports that an individual had travelled from London to Durham and was present at an address in the city’.

The force said officers ‘made contact with the owners of that address who confirmed that the individual in question was present and was self-isolating in part of the house.

‘In line with national policing guidance, officers explained to the family the arrangements around self-isolation guidelines and reiterated the appropriate advice around essential travel.’

April 5: An unnamed neighbour tells the Mirror and the Guardian Mr Cummings was seen in his parents’ garden.

‘I got the shock of my life as I looked over to the gates and saw him,’ they said. 

March 30 – April 6: The period Mr Cummings’ wife Mary Wakefield describes the family’s battle with coronavirus in the April 25 issue of the Spectator.

She makes no mention of the trip to Durham and describes the challenges of caring for their son while suffering the symptoms of Covid-19.

She says their small son nursed Mr Cummings with Ribena. 

April 12: Robert Lees, a retired chemistry teacher, claims to have seen Mr Cummings 30 miles away from his parents home in Barnard Castle. 

April 14: Mr Cummings returns to work for the first time since news he was suffering from Coronavirus emerged.

Questions are raised about his adherence to social distancing advice as he is photographed walking down Downing Street with fellow aide Cleo Watson.

April 19: A passer-by claims to have spotted Mr Cummings and his family admiring bluebells with his wife, back in Durham.

May 22: News breaks in the Mirror and the Guardian of Mr Cummings’ trip to Durham.

May 23: Downing Street stands by the PM’s chief aide, saying in a statement: ‘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.’ 

That evening, a joint Sunday Mirror and Observer investigation reveals the two new eyewitness claims. 

‘But I fear I didn’t get that and what is more worrying is my constituents didn’t get that and so I got swamped with even more emails from people who don’t have a political axe to grind, who say “look, hold on, this sends out a very bad message, it looks as though it is one rule for them and one for us, why should we now abide by Government guidance?”

‘I think that is deeply worrying. The only show in town at the moment is how the Government continues to deal with coronavirus and anything that deflects from that or distracts the Prime Minister from the work he needs to do from that is damaging and needs to be dealt with.’

There is now anger over Mr Cummings’ actions and Mr Johnson’s handling of the fallout from the top to the bottom of the Conservative Party. 

One cabinet minister told The Times: ‘He [Mr Johnson] has sacrificed his own credibility to save Dominic Cummings. He is burning away his personal brand, his trust, to save Dom. Dom needs to go.’

A senior Tory MP told The Guardian: ‘The PM is losing his instinct, he might be losing the plot and we could lose the country over this virus.’ 

One senior Tory source told The Telegraph: ‘Boris has put his credibility and the Government’s credibility on the line by sticking up for Dom. How can we tell people they must abide by the lockdown now? 

‘The lockdown is effectively over because this makes it unenforceable.’

Veteran Conservative Sir Roger Gale said the PM had failed to ‘put this to bed’ and ‘I fear that now the story is simply going to run and run’. 

Simon Hoare, who had already called for Mr Cummings to go, later lamented Mr Johnson’s press conference, saying: ‘The PM’s performance posed more questions than it answered. 

‘Any residual hope that this might die away in the next 24 hours is lost.’

Meanwhile, police are concerned that the row, and Mr Johnson’s decision to stick with Mr Cummings, will make it almost impossible to enforce lockdown rules. 

Mike Barton, ex-chief constable of Durham Police, told The Daily Telegraph: ‘How on earth are the police supposed to enforce the rules now? 

‘What has happened has completely holed the legislation that was introduced to keep people safe below the waterline. It is dead in the water.’

In a sign of just how difficult the situation facing Number 10 is, the PM has also been criticised by senior Church of England figures. 

The Rt Revd Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds, said: ‘The question now is: do we accept being lied to, patronised and treated by a PM as mugs?

‘The moral question is not for Cummings – it is for PM and ministers/MPs who find this behaviour acceptable.’

Mr Johnson had attempted to use last night’s press conference to draw a line under the row as he insisted Mr Cummings had acted ‘with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of the virus and saving lives’.

Mr Johnson said his adviser had ‘followed the instincts of every father and every parent’ in travelling to a place where he could get help caring for his four-year-old son if he and wife came down with the virus at the same time.

The PM denied that Mr Cummings was guilty of double standards, saying he had faced ‘very severe child care difficulties’ that could only be resolved by leaving his home in London and taking his family to Durham.

His wife Mary developed symptoms of the virus in late March and the couple feared they might be unable to care for their young son if Mr Cummings also came down with the illness, which he later did.

The family stayed on a property at the farm owned by Mr Cummings parents. In the event they did not need help with child care but did receive food deliveries from his sister while they were isolating for 14 days.

The decision to travel hundreds of miles while his wife was ill appeared to break government rules telling families they must stay at home for 14 days as soon as a member of the household develops symptoms.

But Mr Johnson said: ‘I have concluded that in travelling to find the right kind of childcare, at the moment when both he and his wife were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus – and 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.’ 

No 10 yesterday denied claims in the Mirror that Mr Cummings had made a second visit to Durham after returning to work in No 10.  

Prof Reicher, a University of St Andrews academic, had tweeted last night to savage Mr Johnson’s performance at the daily Number 10 press conference.  

‘I can say that in a few short minutes tonight, 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,’ he said. 

‘Be open and honest, we said. Trashed. Respect the public, we said. Trashed. Ensure equity, so everyone is treated the same, we said. Trashed. Be consistent we said. Trashed. Make clear ‘we are all in it together’. Trashed.’

Shortly after the comment was shared, three other government advisers, two also on the committee, echoed Professor Reicher’s anger.

On Saturday, the Government said Mr Cummings had acted ‘reasonably and legally’ in response to claims he had driven 270 miles from London to Durham with his wife amid the nationwide lockdown.

Retired chemistry teacher Robin Lees then claimed he saw Mr Cummings and his family on April 12 walking in the town of Barnard Castle, according to The Guardian and The Mirror.

The town is 30 miles from Durham, where the aide had been self-isolating. Mr Lees has reportedly made a complaint to the police.

Mr Cummings was photographed back in Downing Street on April 14 before a passerby claimed to have seen him in Durham again on April 19. 

Following Professor Reicher’s Tweet, Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London said: ‘I don’t want science to be dragged down by association with dishonesty.

‘My fear is that science, which is key to getting through this pandemic, will be diminished in the eyes of the public.’

Robert West, also part of the advisory group, backed his colleagues as he shared Professor Michie’s post.

Three other Government advisers, including Professor Susan Michie (left) and Professor Robert West (right), also echoed Professor Reicher’s anger

Epidemiologist on the Government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling Adam Kurcharski (pictured) said it’s going to be more difficult to achieve contact tracing through public adherence

Professor West had earlier tweeted: ‘Conservative MPs and supporters must be feeling alarmed at what is going on in government. It is nothing short of a shambles with Trumpian levels of deceit.

‘The people of this country are being treated like idiots and I doubt that they will stand for it.’

He also implored the public to continue following the guidance on the lockdown, adding: ‘There is a natural human tendency to say, ‘If someone else can flout it, so can I’, but who will suffer? Dominic Cummings won’t suffer if we abandon it, the Prime Minister won’t suffer – it will be the people who we love who will suffer.

Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist on the Government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, added: ‘I spent this weekend refining our contact tracing analysis. 

‘One of the things that’s always stood out is that for these targeted measures to work, we need public adherence to quarantine to be very high. 

‘But I fear it’s now going to be far more difficult to achieve this.’

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