Ministers spent much of the weekend loyally defending Dominic Cummings, the enigmatic aide often portrayed as the mastermind behind Johnson’s premiership, after it emerged he and his wife traveled 260 miles across England to stay at his parents’ property while sick with coronavirus symptoms.
But Cummings’ position became more perilous still on Sunday, after fresh claims emerged that he had in fact broken the UK’s coronavirus lockdown on multiple occasions throughout April.
The saga has descended into scandal in Britain, quickly becoming a defining moment in the country’s much-scrutinized response to the coronavirus pandemic and threatening to undermine the lockdown rules Johnson has spent eight weeks pleading with Britons to follow.
And its timing was particularly unfortunate for the Prime Minister, who has overseen the deadliest Covid-19 outbreak in Europe and who was forced into an embarrassing U-turn on a controversial fee for immigrant health care workers just days earlier.
Calls for Cummings to be sacked
The uproar over Cummings’ behavior began on Friday evening when two newspapers, The Guardian and the Daily Mirror, revealed he had traveled from London to Durham to stay at his parents’ property at the end of March while his wife had coronavirus symptoms.
But Downing Street has stood by the aide, insisting he needed his parents to care for his child in case Cummings also became sick with symptoms, which he later did. “Caring for your wife and child is not a crime,” minister Michael Gove tweeted, one of a number of leading government figures to claim the lockdown allowed for such trips.
That defense was bruised on Sunday, after the same papers dropped new details alleging Cummings had been seen in the Durham area on multiple occasions after his initial trip. Downing Street has rebutted the subsequent claims, saying in a statement that they “will not waste our time answering a stream of false allegations about Mr. Cummings from campaigning newspapers.”
Cummings’ influence over ministers is well documented in the British political press, but Downing Street’s approach is no longer being followed by several of Johnson’s own backbenchers, who one by one began to call on Cummings to go on Sunday.
And concerns have been raised that the government’s defense of Cummings’ behavior has given implicit permission to the public to interpret the lockdown rules however they see fit.
“There cannot be one rule for Dominic Cummings and another for the British people,” the opposition Labour Party said in a statement. “What worries me most is that some of the most senior politicians in the government have spent the weekend undermining laws and public health messaging designed to protect the public in the pandemic. All to defend their friend,” its shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy added.
Johnson himself remained quiet over the weekend, declining to make any public appearances or statements about Cummings — but he is certain to face questions in the coming days.
Johnson forced into NHS U-turn
Critics of Johnson fear the Cummings controversy will mark a turning point in the British public’s attitudes towards lockdown, but the Prime Minister had already suffered through a torrid few days.
On Thursday the Prime Minister was forced into his first major policy U-turn since winning a sizable majority in December’s general election, agreeing to scrap a heavily criticized fee that overseas NHS and health care workers were forced to pay while simultaneously working on the front lines of the country’s coronavirus battle.
“We cannot clap our carers one day and then charge them to use our NHS the next,” said Labour leader Keir Starmer, who is proving a formidable opponent to Johnson as he settles into the position he took over in April. Starmer was referring to the weekly round of applause for health workers that Britons have been taking part in.
Johnson had defended the surcharge as late as Wednesday, telling MPs “we must look at the realities” and insisting the fee was “the right way forward” to provide the NHS with funding.
But by Thursday the policy was gone, amid growing discontent among Tory backbenchers. The change in tone added to the criticism Johnson has faced over the NHS, with opponents pointing to a lack in personal protective equipment (PPE) and a slow rate of testing.
Throughout the controversies, Britain’s death toll has continued to climb. Though it is well past its peak of cases and deaths, the country has seen more fatalities from Covid-19 than any other country in Europe, with more than 36,000 in total.
The country is entering 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.
CNN’s Simon Cullen and Sarah Dean contributed reporting.