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The Prime Minister has given his backing to his de facto chief-of-staff Dominic Cummings, despite growing calls from his backbenches to sack the aide following allegations he breached lockdown restrictions.
Boris Johnson, speaking at the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing, said Mr Cummings had “acted responsibly, legally and with integrity”.
Conservative MPs had been baying for Mr Johnson to dispense with Mr Cummings after it emerged he had travelled 260 miles to County Durham in March to self-isolate with his family while official guidelines warned against long-distance journeys.
Further reports also suggested he took a second trip to the North East in April, having already returned to London.
Mr Cummings denied the fresh allegations, which were reported by the Observer and the Sunday Mirror, and Mr Johnson announced he would be standing by his most senior aide.
Leading the Government press conference for the third time since being discharged from hospital on April 12, Mr Johnson said he could “not mark down” Mr Cummings for the way he acted.
The PM said: “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.
“And I do not mark him down for that.
“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.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, during an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme on Sunday, had denied that Mr Cummings was going to resign.
Clamour grew on Sunday for the PM to dispense with the adviser he credited with helping him to win a landslide at the general election last year.
A host of Tory MPs piled in to claim the 48-year-old’s position had become “untenable” after it was confirmed he journeyed to stay in a family property in Durham when Government advice was to stay home.
Over the weekend, Number 10 admitted Mr Cummings had driven from his London home to the North East in March after his wife started displaying Covid-19 symptoms, becoming fearful there would be no-one to look after his four-year-old child if he also took ill.
But according to reports, the former Vote Leave campaign co-ordinator made a second trip to Durham and was seen there on April 19 – five days after being photographed on his return to Westminster.
A second witness told the papers they saw him a week earlier in Barnard Castle on Easter Sunday, a popular tourist location 30 miles from Durham, during the period he was believed to be self-isolating.
'We can't have a rule that applies to everyone but the government elite.'@PeterBoneUK says if Dominic Cummings acknowledged he made a "bad mistake" and apologised he could have "carried on", but denying the breach "doesn't stand up to scrutiny."
— SkyNews (@SkyNews) May 24, 2020
The reports convinced Tory MP and former minister Steve Baker to break ranks and call for Mr Cummings to be dismissed.
The prominent figure in the Brexit campaign told the Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “I’m afraid I just think this is the end of the road.”
Other senior Tories, including Peter Bone and ex-immigration minister Caroline Nokes, also spoke out against Mr Cummings.
Craig Whittaker, MP for Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, said Mr Cummings’ position was “untenable”.
“You cannot advise the nation one thing then do the opposite,” he added.
Scotland’s leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, had also encouraged Mr Johnson to dismiss Mr Cummings before the press conference, having had experience herself of having to fire a close aide for breaking lockdown rules.
Catherine Calderwood resigned as Scotland’s chief medical officer after pictures emerged of her twice visiting her holiday home after restrictions had been put in place.
Ms Sturgeon tweeted: “I know it is tough to lose a trusted adviser at the height of crisis, but when it’s a choice of that or integrity of vital public health advice, the latter must come first.”
I know it is tough to lose a trusted adviser at the height of crisis, but when it’s a choice of that or integrity of vital public health advice, the latter must come first. That’s the judgment I and, to her credit, Catherine Calderwood reached. PM and Cummings should do likewise.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) May 24, 2020
But Downing Street, despite the calls for Mr Cummings to be removed from his post, has continued to back the beleaguered aide.
Mr Johnson said he deemed his actions “sensible and defensible”.
Mr Cummings, speaking outside his London home on Sunday before travelling to see the PM at No 10, denied allegations he journeyed a second time to Durham after his return to work on April 14.
After one journalist asked if he had travelled back to Durham in April, he replied: “No, I did not.”
Mr Johnson also said at the briefing that the intention was for primary schools in England to open more widely on June 1, but acknowledged it “may not be possible” for all schools.