A government minister has resigned over Dominic Cummings’ decision to drive across England with his sick wife during the lockdown, saying many people did not share the adviser’s interpretation that he had stuck to the rules.
Douglas Ross, the MP for Moray, stepped down as a Scotland Office minister, saying he accepted Cummings felt he had acted in the best interests of his family but these were “decisions others felt were not available to them”.
“While the intentions may have been well meaning, the reaction to this news shows that Mr Cummings’ interpretation of the government advice was not shared by the vast majority of people who have done as the government asked,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.
“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. I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right.”
The resignation deepens the crisis engulfing the government, with more than 20 backbench MPs calling on Boris Johnson to sack his chief aide and considerable anger among some ministers about Cummings’ actions.
However, Johnson has rallied behind his senior aide – a key architect of Brexit and the prime minister’s election victory – and marshalled top cabinet ministers, including Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock, to do the same.
Michael Gove, a Cabinet Office minister, insisted on Tuesday that “fair-minded people” would now have to make up their own minds.
The longtime ally of Cummings was sent out to defend him in broadcast interviews the day after the aide gave a statement explaining why he drove 264 miles from London to Durham during the lockdown and risked spreading coronavirus.
Cummings: ‘I don’t regret what I did, reasonable people may disagree’ – video
Police, medics and scientists continued to say that Cummings’ actions risked undermining the lockdown and public health advice.
Sir Peter Fahy, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester police, said officers were frustrated by the case, which made it difficult to see the future role of the police in controlling lockdown.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s a lot of confusion and it feels like there’s quite a gap between the public narrative and narrative of ministers about the lockdown and what’s happening on the street.
“I think it’s quite hard to see the role the police have in the future – the rules about the reasons for travel are now very confused, when you see the crowds on Bournemouth and Southend beaches and other places yesterday, it’s hard to see what role the police have in trying to control that.”
Niall Dickson, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS organisations,
told the same programme: “Because of the way this story has unfolded there is certainly concern among our members, health leaders, that it could damage staff and public confidence in official guidance.
“You can’t say too often that the guidance has actually saved thousands of lives, and I think if we look forward over the next few weeks, following guidance is going to be as vital as ever and actually it’s going to be more complex because as lockdown eases the advice is, frankly, less binary and people have to exercise more discretion.”
In a round of broadcast interviews, Gove was asked:
• Why Cummings went back to work in No 10 after suspecting that his wife could have contracted coronavirus, risking spreading the virus further among colleagues. Gove said she was unwell but did not have official coronavirus symptoms of a cough or fever at that time.
• Why the aide decided that same night to drive 264 miles to Durham to stay on his parents’ estate because of concerns that he and his wife had coronavirus, despite government instructions to self-isolate at home. Gove said he had been acting out of concern that they would be unable to care for their child, despite neither of them having classic coronavirus symptoms at that point.
• Whether it was acceptable for them to have risked spreading coronavirus from the hotspot of London to rural Durham where there were few cases, given their son later needed hospital treatment in the north-east. Gove said his actions had been appropriate.
• Why people should accept his explanation that he needed to make a 60-mile round trip to a beauty spot with his family to test his eyesight before travelling back to London. Gove said it was safe for him to have driven and that Cummings had been “preparing for work”.
• Why the aide needed to seek help with possible backup childcare in the north-east when long-time friends in London could have helped, including Gove himself. Gove said he would not have expected Cummings to have turned to him instead of close family.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Gove said: “I think Dominic completely understands the sense of concern people felt as the story broke.
“I think the account he gave yesterday was exhaustive, it was detailed, it was verifiable. I think people will make their own mind up as they listened to Dominic’s account.
“I think most people will understand he was under pressure, and sought to put the health of his wife and son first, and took care to ensure they, as a family unit, were not in danger of infecting other people.”
Michael Gove: Cummings was trying to limit spread of virus with 260-mile drive to Durham – video
Opposition leaders will meet on Tuesday morning to discuss the next steps in holding Cummings to account. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has said he would have sacked Cummings if he were in Johnson’s position, while the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National party have called on the prime minister to fire the adviser.