Boris Johnson on Thursday dramatically tried to shut down debate on the behaviour of Dominic Cummings, announcing that his chief scientific and medical experts would not give their opinions on whether the Number 10 adviser had undermined the coronavirus lockdown.
Mr Johnson again refused to apologise for the behaviour of Mr Cummings, in spite of Durham police announcing on Thursday that the Downing Street aide might have committed a “minor breach” of coronavirus regulations while self-isolating in the county.
Mr Johnson, who has repeatedly said Mr Cummings behaved reasonably and legally, insisted that since the police had decided not to pursue the case, there was nothing more to say. “I intend to draw a line under the matter,” he told the daily Downing Street press conference.
Speculation has mounted in recent days that Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, and Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, were unhappy with Mr Cummings’ behaviour and the risk that it would undermine the lockdown.
But when journalists asked the two advisers whether they condoned Mr Cummings’ trip from London to Durham — and subsequent 52-mile day trip to Barnard Castle — Mr Johnson declared he would not let them be drawn into what was “fundamentally a political argument”.
Prof Whitty said he had no desire to get drawn into politics and Sir Patrick said: “I’m neutral and a civil servant. I don’t want to get involved in politics at all.”
Mr Johnson insisted that members of the public — who will now be asked to self-isolate for 14 days if they have been in contact with someone with coronavirus — would not change their behaviour because of the Cummings affair.
But the statement by Durham police and the tense press conference that followed guarantees that Mr Cummings’ apparent breach of the lockdown has been prominent in the news for a whole week.
Durham police said that Mr Cummings might have committed a “minor breach” of coronavirus lockdown regulations when he drove 26 miles from where he was self-isolating in north-east England to Barnard Castle
Mr Cummings, who had driven to Co Durham from London on March 27 to self-isolate on a property owned by his father, did not commit an offence “contrary to [Covid-19] regulations” in making the 260-mile journey, the Durham police statement said.
But it concluded that regarding an April 12 trip to Barnard Castle, which Mr Cummings said at a press conference on Monday was made to assess whether he was fit enough to drive back to London having suffered coronavirus symptoms, there “might have been a minor breach of the regulations that would have warranted police intervention”.
“Durham Constabulary view this as minor because there was no apparent breach of social distancing,” the police statement said.
The north-eastern force said that, if an officer had stopped Mr Cummings during the drive between his parents’ home and Barnard Castle, he would probably have been advised to return to the house.
Lawyers said the statement indicated that police believed there was sufficient evidence to proceed with an investigation into the issue but it was not in the public interest to do so.
Police could only categorically say Mr Cummings had committed a breach following an investigation, they said.
“The police would normally say they ‘had sufficient evidence’ or that there was ‘a likely chance of conviction’ [in a circumstance like this],” said Raj Chada, head of the criminal defence practice at law firm Hodge Jones & Allen.
Steve White, Durham’s acting police, crime and victims’ commissioner, a non-party political post, said the police statement showed officers had acted fairly in their treatment of Mr Cummings.
“Clarity has now been provided by the force in relation to the matter concerning Mr Cummings as things stood on the dates in question,” he said in a statement.
Questioned on whether he believed Mr Cummings should have stepped down, Labour leader Keir Starmer said he would have “sacked” the adviser from the “outset” if he had been prime minister.
Speaking during a virtual Q&A session, he said: “The only question that would've mattered to me as prime minister is 'Is this going to make it less likely that other people will comply with the rules?'.
“If the answer to that is ‘Yes’ then I, as prime minister, would’ve got rid of him. I think the fact that Boris Johnson hasn’t has weakened him.”
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