LONDON -- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plans to announce further lockdown-easing measures were being overshadowed Monday by an outcry over the movements of a senior aide who allegedly flouted restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Conservative leader Johnson is standing by adviser Dominic Cummings, who drove 250 miles (400 kms) from his London home to his parents’ house while he was infected with the virus.
Johnson said Cummings “followed the instincts of every father and every parent,” traveling so that extended family could care for his 4-year-old son if he and his wife both fell ill.
But many Britons saw the trip as a clear breach of the government’s national “stay at home” order, introduced on March 23. Cummings was heckled with calls of “hypocrite” as he returned to his London home Sunday after spending the day in 10 Downing St.
Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist who sits on a group advising the government, said “more people are going to die” because the episode would undermine adherence to the lockdown rules.
Several senior Church of England clergy joined in the criticism. Bishop of Leeds Nick Baines said the public had been “lied to, patronized and treated … as mugs.” Bishop of Manchester David Walker tweeted: “Unless very soon we see clear repentance, including the sacking of Cummings, I no longer know how we can trust what ministers say sufficiently for @churchofengland to work together with them on the pandemic.”
A self-styled political disruptor who disdains the media and civil service, Cummings has been essential to Johnson’s rise to power. He was one of the architects of the successful campaign to take Britain out of the European Union, and orchestrated Brexit champion Johnson’s thumping election victory in December.
Five months on from that triumph, Johnson’s government is facing criticism for its response to a pandemic that has hit Britain harder than any other European country. Britain’s official coronavirus death toll stands at 36,793, the second-highest confirmed total in the world after the United States.
The coronavirus laid low a swath of senior U.K. officials, including Cummings, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Johnson himself, who spent several days in intensive care at a London hospital in April.
The U.K. is gradually easing its lockdown, allowing more outdoor recreation and letting some shops and businesses reopen.
But as Johnson gathered his Cabinet on Monday to discuss plans to reopen schools and more stores starting June 1, the Cummings scandal showed no signs of dying down.
Ominously for Johnson, a growing number of Conservative lawmakers have joined the opposition in criticizing Cummings. Member of Parliament Paul Maynard said the aide’s actions were “a classic case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ … It seems to me to be utterly indefensible and his position wholly untenable.”
The conservative Daily Mail newspaper, usually supportive of Johnson, blared “What planet are they on?” in a headline about Cummings and the prime minister.
In a front-page editorial, the newspaper said “for the good of the government and the nation, Mr. Cummings must resign. Or the prime minister must sack him. No ifs, no buts.”