A scientist advising the government on its response to the coronavirus crisis has accused the prime minister of undermining public health messaging on Covid-19 by defending Dominic Cummings’s breach of lockdown rules – as a junior minister resigned over the matter.
Stephen Reicher, a social scientist who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours, said by backing his top special adviser, Boris Johnson threatened to “undermine the sense of community” that ensured people followed coronavirus measures.
The warning came as Douglas Ross, a junior minister in the Scotland Office, resigned saying the prime minister’s defence of Cummings, who made a 260-mile round trip with his family while his wife was suffering from Covid-19, meant he could “no longer serve as a member of this government”.
Johnson has continued to stand by his senior adviser, who said on Monday he had acted “reasonably and legally” by driving from London to his parents’ property in Durham after his wife contracted coronavirus. Cummings said he was concerned he would become ill and the pair would be unable to care for their small child.
In a televised statement yesterday, Cummings said he understood the “intense hardship and sacrifice” the country had been through during the crisis, but insisted he had acted “legally and reasonably” as he gave his first on-the-record account of why he moved his family from London to Durham during the coronavirus lockdown.
Speaking in the Rose Garden behind 10 Downing Street, Mr Cummings said: “I know millions of people in this country have been suffering. Thousands have died.
Recounting the reasons for his journey, the aide said he had received a “sudden” call from his wife who had fallen “badly ill” the day after Boris Johnson himself tested positive for coronavirus.
Cummings said a raft of Covid-19 diagnoses at the top of government meant there was “a distinct possibility” that he had “already caught the disease”.
“I was worried that if my wife and I were both seriously ill, possibly hospitalised, there was nobody in London we could reasonably ask to look after our child and expose them to Covid,” he said.
And he added: “My wife felt on the edge of not being able to look after him safely... I was thinking, what if the same or worse happens to me, there is nobody here I can reasonably ask to help.”
Cummings has been accused of breaking strict lockdown guidelines in place to halt the spread of Covid-19. but he told reporters of his decision to travel to Durham: “The regulations made clear, I believe, that risks to the health of a small child were an exceptional situation, and I had a way of dealing with this that minimised risk to others.”
However, Reicher told Sky News the “real problem” that had emerged over the weekend was “not simply what Cummings did but in the messaging the prime minister put out”.
SPI-B provides advice and analysis to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which is advising the government on its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Reicher said one of the “central messages” the group had given government was that “the way we have got through this pandemic to date was by acting together, by thinking in terms of what’s good for the community”.
“Millions of people up and down the country have done precisely that in very difficult circumstances, agonising circumstance, around their families have thought, what is good for us as a community?”
The social psychology professor said the lesson people would take away from Johnson backing Cummings was: “forget about the ‘we’; it’s about ‘I’. When the going gets tough… you think about your own interpretation of what the implications are for you.”
He added: “It threatens to undermine that sense of community if a figure as prominent as Domnic Cummings, and if the prime minister himself, starts undermining that ‘we’ message and starts talking about ‘I’.
In an open resignation letter, Ross also said Cumming's interpretation of the government's "stay home" advice was "was not shared by the vast majority of people who have done as the government asked".
He said he was not satisfied by Cumming’s explanation of his actions – which included making a 30-minute trip to the beauty spot Barnard Castle to test that his eyesight was good enough for the journey back to London.
The MP, first elected in 2017, said he had constituents who had been unable “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”.
He added: “I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right.”