London — A mounting controversy over the movements of a top aide to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson during Britain'slockdown prompted the resignation of a cabinet minister on Tuesday. Senior adviser Dominic Cummings — widely considered a chief architect of Johnson's policies on everything from Brexit to COVID-19 — traveled almost 300 miles to stay with family during the height of the U.K. epidemic in March.
Douglas Ross, who quit his government job on Tuesday, said Cummings' view of the lockdown rules was, "not shared by the vast majority of people."
Cummings admitted to traveling almost 300 miles with his wife and son from London to his family farm in County Durham, northern England, on March 27, when his wife was showing symptoms of COVID-19 and people were being told by the government to stay at home to save lives. Critics accuse him of breaking — or at least loosely interpreting — the lockdown rules he helped craft, and risking the further spread of COVID-19.
"I have constituents who didn't get to say goodbye to loved ones; families who could not mourn together; people who didn't visit sick relatives because they followed the guidance of the government," Ross said in the letter announcing his resignation as a junior government minister. "I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right."
Cummings is often credited for Johnson's election victory as well as the successful "Vote Leave" campaign during Britain's 2016referendum. He has long been accused of pulling the strings of government from behind the scenes. The controversy over his trip has been notable for the way it confirmed his importance to Johnson, who staunchly defended him in a press conference Sunday amid calls for his dismissal from politicians around the U.K.
"He followed the instincts of every father and every parent, and I do not mark him down for that," Johnson said. "I believe that, in every respect, he has acted responsibly, and legally, and with integrity."
On Monday, an unapologetic Cummings himself addressed the media from the garden of the Prime Minister's residence at 10 Downing Street, lashing out at the press for what he said was inaccurate coverage of the incident and blaming public anger on the media.
"I'm not surprised many people are very angry," he said. "I don't regret what I did; I think what I did was reasonable in these circumstances."
He said he left London in March with his family because teenage relatives in Durham would have been able to care for his 4-year-old son if both he and his wife had become gravely ill. He said they stayed in a separate cottage on his family's farm. Once there, Cummings said he quickly came down with coronavirus symptoms himself, and his son became unwell and was briefly hospitalized.
While in Durham, his family went on a walk in their private woodland, where they saw other people from a distance. Then, 15 days after Cummings first displayed symptoms and after he said he had received medical advice that it was okay for him to return to work, he drove his family about half an hour to the beauty spot, Barnard Castle. He claimed the trip was made to test his eyesight, which he said had been affected by his illness, for the much longer drive back to London, rather than to go sightseeing with his family.
Cummings claimed he did not stop for gas or anything else during the hours-long drive to Durham with his wife and small child, but said he couldn't recall whether they had stopped for gas on the trip back down to the capital on April 13.
After the press conference on Monday, cameras captured Cummings being heckled by protesters as he returned to his London home.
Later that evening, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during another, scheduled media briefing, again addressed the Cummings controversy.
"My conclusion is that he acted reasonably," Johnson said, adding that, "people will have to make their minds up."