Key lockdown adviser criticises Johnson’s defence of Cummings

Tess de la Mare, PA Political Correspondent

A member of the Government’s advisory group on behavioural science has said Boris Johnson’s decision to defend Dominic Cummings has left the UK “divided confused and adrift”.

Speaking to the PA news agency on Sunday, after condemning Boris Johnson on Twitter, Professor Stephen Reicher said: “I think the PM could have at the very least acknowledged that a mistake had been made.

“To pretend there was no case to answer was first of all incomprehensible; secondly, unconvincing; and thirdly deeply, deeply counter productive.”

Prof Reicher is on the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours which passes its advice to Sage, and is also professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews.

The Prime Minister chose to front the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing on Sunday to publicly back Mr Cummings, saying he had “acted responsibly, legally and with integrity” by driving 260 miles to County Durham to isolate and that “any parent would frankly understand what he did”.

Tory backbenchers have lashed Mr Johnson over his handling of the row, while scientists claimed his defence of Mr Cummings’ interpretation of the lockdown rules undermined efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Professor Reicher said the Cummings affair had led to leadership being compromised amid the country’s greatest crisis since World War II.

Coronavirus-related deaths in hospitals in England (PA Graphics)

“In the end what happens to Dominic Cummings as an individual is a sideshow,” he said.

“The most important thing is we are in the greatest crisis we have had probably since the Second World War and certainly in a generation.

“In confronting the pandemic, the unity and the adherence of the public to what was asked of them by Government was absolutely critical.

“At a stage where trust and leadership is all the more important, trust has been lost, the capacity for leadership has been compromised and therefore all of us are left, divided confused and adrift and that is a really dangerous situation to be in.”

Prof Reicher said he had lost faith in the Government’s ability to understand and act on the advice it was given when it shifted the message to “stay alert” on May 10.

“We have talked (to the Government) about involving the public in making decisions so the public can own these decisions, we have talked about clarity, we have talked about preparing for things so they are practically possible and sadly all those principles were compromised by the shift to ‘stay alert’.

“This (Dominic Cummings) situation takes it a stage further, it does seem to me for the sake of protecting one of their own what the Government has done is to compromise fundamental principles and fundamentally compromised their ability to keep the public onboard in dealing with the pandemic.

“This really does concern me. It does make me feel like a lot of the work we have been doing hasn’t been heard.”

When asked if he would stay in his unpaid role with SPI-B, Prof Reicher said: “The one thing that gives me some cause for optimism is the fact that the public reaction so far has been quite remarkable.

“The reason why lockdown has worked is because people have sacrificed themselves for the common good and I think we have got to recognise the extent to which we do owe a debt of gratitude to public common sense.”

Fellow SPI-B member Robert West, professor of health psychology at University College London (UCL), said the public must continue to socially distance despite the “confusion and misinformation” created by the Government.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Sunday’s media briefing. Aside from the Cummings affair, the switch to the ‘stay alert’ message has also concerned behavioural science adviser Stephen Reicher (10 Downing Street handout/PA)

Mr Cummings travelled to County Durham in March to self-isolate with his family while official guidelines warned against long-distance journeys, apparently because he feared that he and his wife would be left unable to care for their son.

Further reports also suggested he took a second trip to the North East in April, having already returned to London following his recovery from coronavirus – a disease which has killed more than 45,000 people in the UK.

Mr Cummings denied the fresh allegations, reported by the Observer and the Sunday Mirror, and Mr Johnson declared he would be standing by his most senior adviser.

“I have had extensive face-to-face conversations with Dominic Cummings and 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,” Mr Johnson said.

As the Cummings scandal intensified, police attended Mr Cummings’s London home on Sunday afternoon after it was “reported that a large crowd of people were outside the address”. Scotland Yard would not confirm who had called officers.