LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced mutiny in his party and fury across Britain on Monday for refusing to sack his closest aide Dominic Cummings who is accused of flouting the coronavirus lockdown by driving 250 miles from London.
Defending one of Britain’s most powerful men, Johnson said at the weekend Cummings acted “responsibly and legally and with integrity” by heading from London to northern England with his son and his wife, who was ill with COVID-19 symptoms.
Many believe that was hypocritical given the government’s mantra at the time to avoid such movements.
“What planet are they on?” asked the Daily Mail, an influential right-wing paper usually supportive of Johnson and his adviser, who helped the prime minister to power and to secure Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Some 20 ruling Conservative Party lawmakers, 14 Church of England bishops and some scientists also expressed anger.
“Johnson has now gone the full Trump,” said Pete Broadbent, bishop of Willesden, comparing Britain’s leader to his ever-controversial U.S. ally President Donald Trump.
With a death toll around 43,000, Britain is the worst-hit country in Europe and the government was already under pressure over its handling of the pandemic.
Conservative lawmakers reported being contacted by outraged constituents who had made sacrifices during the lockdown, including staying away from dying relatives.
“I got swamped with even more emails from people who don’t have a political axe to grind and who say… ‘it looks as though it’s one rule for them and one for us, why should we now abide by government guidance?’,” said lawmaker Tim Loughton.
Behavioural scientist Stephen Reicher, a member of a panel which advises the government, said the furore would wreck public confidence. “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.”
Johnson’s Downing Street office said Cummings made the journey to his parents’ property in County Durham to ensure his four-year-old son could be properly cared for by relatives if he fell ill along with his wife.
At the time, the government’s instruction to anyone showing symptoms was not to leave the house for 14 days.
The architect of the successful Brexit campaign in 2016, Cummings, 48, is a polarising figure, accused by many who wanted to stay in the EU of using inflammatory tactics and playing fast and loose with the facts.
Ominously for him and for Johnson, many of the lawmakers and newspaper columnists calling for him to be sacked were Brexit supporters, not his usual critics.
Coming home late on Sunday, Cummings was harangued by neighbours, including a woman who broke down in tears as she leaned out of her window and described the hardship she and her family had endured during the lockdown.
In contrast to Cummings, Scotland’s chief medical officer and a senior epidemiologist who advised the government both resigned after admitting they had broken lockdown rules.
Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne
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