On 23 March, as it became increasingly clear that the full force of the coronavirus crisis was about to descend on Britain, Boris Johnson made a televised address to the nation. “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.”
The prime minister proceeded to outline the very limited purposes for which individuals, or households, could leave the house: shopping for basic necessities (as infrequently as possible); one form of exercise a day; any medical need, by which he meant providing care or helping a vulnerable person; and travelling to and from work – but only where this was absolutely necessary and could not be done remotely. Lockdown, however belated, had begun.
Four days later, on 27 March, Johnson’s most senior advisor Dominic Cummings, who had been central in formulating the lockdown advice, received an urgent call from his wife – Spectator journalist Mary Wakefield.
Wakefield was at the couple’s London home with their four year old son. She relayed to her husband how she felt sick – although at this point she had neither a cough or a fever, the two principal symptoms for those suffering from the virus – and that her ability to look after their son might soon become impaired. On hearing this Cummings rushed home, as evidenced by media footage from the day showing him jogging briskly across Downing Street.
After arriving home and staying with his wife for a few hours, Cummings decided to return to work as Wakefield was feeling “a bit better”. This was the first breach of the guidelines: Cummings had been in contact with an individual who felt they were exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, and yet returned to work. This wasn’t a ‘loophole’ that was exploited (the preferred term of the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg yesterday following Cummings’ statement from Downing Street) – the government’s own advice meant he should have stayed put. By that evening, in his own words, Cummings thought there was now a “distinct probability” that he had “already caught the disease”. Whether he thought that before returning to work just hours earlier is unclear.
The following day Cummings and Wakefield decided to go to Cummings’ father’s estate, where the family had multiple properties and where the couple would be close to both Cummings’ parents as well as his sister and nieces. In the event of both Cummings and his wife becoming incapacitated, his sister or nieces would administer care for the couple’s young son.
Cummings claims the concern driving this trip was that there was nobody to care for his son in London in the event of both him and his wife being simultaneously hospitalised. Given their age this was highly unlikely, and given millions of other people were in a similar situation (or worse), the agreed solution – of driving across the country – was in no way capable of being a general rule. If everyone did likewise, a ‘lockdown’ Cummings himself had helped devise would have been entirely ineffective.
The following day the couple drove to Durham – some 260 miles away – to decamp to the family farm. This was five days after the prime minister had told the public: “You must stay at home”. Cummings claims he did not tell the prime minister about his decision because “he was ill himself and he had huge problems to deal with”. This, however, is not credible if – as has been repeatedly claimed – Johnson was initially able to work from hospital.
Furthermore, if the prime minister wasn’t told about Cummings leaving the capital, then who was? Boris Johnson’s interim replacement Dominic Raab? If not Raab, then who? Who was in charge that weekend as the prime minister lay in hospital and the death toll rose by the day? Was the country effectively leaderless? This is the only conclusion that can be drawn if Cummings’ testimony is to be believed. This in itself requires urgent answers.
Over the following days, the couple and their son stayed in a cottage on the family estate. There they claim to have had no contact with anyone, with Cummings’ sister buying groceries for the family and leaving it on their doorstep. Beyond this, the claim is his extended family provided no support during their stay. Which begs the question: was a 520 mile round trip really necessary? To have your sister deliver groceries to your front door, rather than a Tesco or Sainsbury’s delivery driver? That the family had no further interaction with Cummings and his wife would indicate that, far from extenuating, the circumstances they had found themselves in were entirely ordinary.
On Saturday 2 April, the couple’s son visited a nearby hospital after exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus. The government’s advice – to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives – had been formulated precisely to avoid situations like this. The couple, who believed they had coronavirus, had travelled from a high infection area to a low infection area and proceeded to go to a hospital. If you were actively trying to spread the virus, it would be difficult to devise a more reckless sequence of behaviour.
In the days that followed, the couple were told that their son did not have the virus. Given his proximity to both parents, particularly after 28 March, this would indicate that neither Cummings nor his wife had had the virus either, despite the latter writing for the Spectator a month later how “getting coronavirus does not bring clarity”. Did the couple ever have the virus to be in receipt of such information? It appears not, and so far it appears neither has been tested for it. Far from extenuating, their circumstances would appear to have been rather fortunate – a stomach upset rather than a killer virus. A near miss. A minor misfortune which led to repeated transgressions of the rules.
The couple stayed in Durham a further nine days before, on 12 April – a date which just so happens to coincide with Wakefield’s birthday – they decided to test Cummings’ eyesight with a “short” drive to Barnard Castle. This was 30 miles away, and the drive took approximately 45 minutes. Again, rather than exercising caution, Cummings was taking the kind of risk the rest of the public was being explicitly told to avoid. The government’s advice at this point remained the same: “You must stay at home”. This was the third time Cummings had gone against a command he himself helped author. This was a non-urgent trip, and it is unclear why Wakefield – who in a piece in the Spectator from 2012 claimed to drive an hour to work every morning – could not have driven the family back to London instead.
Again, this risk had unforeseen consequences, as upon arriving at Barnard Castle Cummings apparently “felt a bit sick”. How fortunate this happened to be in a local beauty spot, 45 minutes drive from his family estate and on his wife’s birthday. It was to improve Cummings’ condition, presumably, that the couple and their son went to a nearby riverbank and sat there for 15 minutes.
While driving back home, the couple’s son had to stop for a toilet break – entirely normal for a four year old, but something which makes their uninterrupted 260 mile journey just a few days earlier all the more questionable. It was then that Wakefield “briefly” left the car with the couple’s son, after which Cummings “briefly” joined them. Indeed, this stop was so brief that other members of the public saw them. They returned to London the following day.
Speaking on Sunday evening, Boris Johnson said the couple had “no alternative” but to drive 260 miles in late March. Yet it transpired that once in Durham, Cummings and Wakefield required no assistance in looking after their child bar groceries being delivered. Multiple non-urgent trips, in violation of lockdown rules, were ultimately done for no reason. Despite all of this, at no point has it occurred to Cummings to offer his resignation.
Such brazen hypocrisy is what has so exercised the public. It is why a government minister has resigned, why even the Daily Mail can’t defend the government, and why members of the medical establishment are on the verge of being vocal in their criticism.
By his own admission, an individual who helped formulate demanding lockdown rules repeatedly flouted them. While businesses shut, jobs were lost and futures were put on hold, Cummings thought the rules didn’t apply to him.
Dominic Cummings has behaved in such a way that if generalised would render any track and trace protocol wholly ineffective. A government which refuses to remove him has lost any authority, and legitimacy, in administering the country’s gravest crisis in 70 years. He should be sacked – and if the prime minister can’t bring himself to do that, then he should go too.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.