The question that Johnson must answer about Cummings

Either Dominic Cummings’s action in driving to Durham from London had some justification that excused it or it had not.

That it requires excuse is unarguable, since the guidelines state clearly that infected households must isolate at once and that even healthy people should leave the house only for a narrow range of reasons and should not travel to stay elsewhere.

Mary Wakefield’s account of her own and her husband’s illness, broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and published in The Spectator, is mendacious, since it makes no mention of their travelling to Durham and implies that they remained in London (suppressio veri, suggestio falsi : to suppress the truth is to suggest a lie). However, the details it supplies may be accurate. If they are, then Cummings fell ill within 24 hours of being seen hurrying from Downing St. which happened around midday on 27 March:

‘My husband did rush home to look after me…But 24 hours later he said “I feel weird” and collapsed. I felt breathless, sometimes achy, but Dom couldn’t get out of bed.’

Since from that point

‘for ten days he had a high fever, with spasms that made the muscles lump and twitch in his legs. 
He could breathe but only in a limited shallow way’

it is evident that he could not have driven anywhere*.

We know from Durham Police that he was already in the city by 31 March, so the inference is that he travelled north either on the same day he left Downing St (27 March) or, at the very latest, on the morning of the next day.

10 Downing St issued a statement on 30 March saying that Cummings was self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms. It is scarcely credible that Downing St, and Boris Johnson, did not at that point know that Cummings was in Durham (if they did not, then Cummings must have lied to them, or at the very least concealed the fact that he had travelled).

We now come to the central point of the matter. If Boris Johnson knew that Cummings had travelled to Durham, in breach of general government guidelines on travel, and had done so with an infected person and possibly when infected himself, then either he was persuaded that the action was excusable or he was not. If he was not so persuaded, then he has colluded in concealing Cummings’s wrongdoing at the time and has lied about it since it came out, and persuaded members of the cabinet to repeat his lie.

But if he believed it was excusable, then he still colluded in concealing it. Why?

This is the crux of the matter. When Downing St announced on 30 March that Cummings was self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms, why did it suppress the fact that he was doing so in Durham?

If, as the Prime Minister now maintains, Cummings ‘acted legally and with integrity,’ then he would have saved himself and his colleagues a great deal of trouble if he had said so at the time. Indeed, given the furore that has been generated by it now, it would surely have been politically expedient to do so; unless –

and here we come to the sequels. Both Catherine Calderwood and Neil Ferguson were high-profile figures making a valuable contribution to managing the pandemic. Both were dismissed for trivial breaches of government guidelines when those came to light – Calderwood for making a non-essential journey, Ferguson for allowing someone to visit him. In neither case was any public good served in dismissing them – quite the reverse – since their contribution was valuable and important. The reason both had to go was the same: it looked bad.

It looked bad that two such high-profile figures who were very much part of the campaign to persuade the public to accept draconian restrictions on their freedom had flouted them. As Nicola Sturgeon said, ‘I know it is tough to lose a trusted adviser at the height of crisis, but when it’s a choice of that or integrity of vital public health advice, the latter must come first.’

If Boris Johnson is telling the truth – and given his record of public mendacity and faithlessness in private life, that is a big ‘if’ – then he sincerely believes that Cummings ‘acted legally and with integrity’ in travelling the length of England with an infected wife. So why did he not say so at the time?

If the answer is that ‘the public wouldn’t accept it’ (and remember that this was just a week into lockdown) then that is the same reason that both Calderwood and Ferguson were later dismissed – because what they did, though trivial in itself, was publicly unacceptable. What Cummings did was certainly more serious – he knew his wife was infected and that it was quite likely he was too – yet he broke both the guidelines on isolation and on travel. It would have looked very bad at the time had it come to light, even if there was some excuse.

That raises the question of timing. The story has come out two months into lockdown, when restrictions are already being eased in England and to a lesser extent elsewhere, seven weeks or more after it happened. It is evident from Mary Wakefield’s dishonest account – which her husband later corroborated – that she hoped it would not come out at all, since her version is expressly concocted to give the impression that they remained in London. Was it Boris Johnson’s hope that in suppressing it – as he did – that the passage of time and the possible easing of lockdown would render it, if not acceptable, at least less unacceptable than would have been the case on 30 March?

If that is the case – that (despite believing Cummings had done nothing wrong) he feared public outrage if it was made known at the time – then, besides showing his own cowardice and want of integrity, that is tantamount to saying that Cummings’s action was unacceptable in precisely the same way as Ferguson’s and Calderwood’s were – that it was not the breach of guidance that mattered, but its being discovered – and that he therefore colluded in concealing it.

If, on the other hand, he believes that Cummings ‘acted legally and with integrity’ it is hard to see what other reason he could have for concealing the fact that he travelled to Durham. If it is justifiable now, it was justifiable then. If Cummings has not already gone by the end of today, and if the Prime Minister does not shirk the five o’clock briefing – both distinct possibilities – the question he must be pressed to answer (and not allowed to dodge) is ’why, if you believe Mr Cummings to have acted legally and with integrity, did you not make public the fact that he had travelled to Durham when it was announced that he was in isolation with symptoms of coronavirus on 30 March?’

Supplement: well, I think my question remains the one to ask.

Cummings appeared half an hour late and gave a statement that bore all the hallmarks of being contrived to meet the needs of the moment, in the sense that it provided an explanation for each of the points of controversy that were in the public domain. Some explanations were less credible than others, but the key point for me remains the same: when did the Prime Minister learn that Cummings had travelled to Durham and at what point did he form the conviction that in doing so he had ‘acted legally and with integrity’?

We know, from Cummings himself, that he did not ask Johnson before he went, which was on the evening of 27 March, as I surmised. Cummings said that ‘arguably, this was a mistake’. It would be interesting to know why he thinks that. He says that ‘at some time in that first week when we were both ill and in bed I spoke to the prime minister and told him what I had done. Unsurprisingly, given the condition we were in, neither of us remember the conversation in any detail.’ [my emphasis]

Since that is a key point in the whole affair it seems particularly unfortunate that neither man can recall it in detail nor when it happened (a cynic might observe that it might as well not have occurred at all). At all events it occurred ‘in the first week’ [i.e. of Cummings’s isolation] at a time when both men were ill and in bed. That puts it between 28 March and 5 April when Johnson was admitted to hospital.

That means that for over seven weeks Boris Johnson has known that his chief aide ostensibly broke the guidelines on isolation and on travel that he was instrumental in imposing on the general public. Even in his fevered state, that must have been a matter of concern to him, more so when Catherine Calderwood was forced to resign for very similar reasons on 5 April, the day Johnson was admitted to hospital. When Johnson was discharged from hospital a week later (April 12) to recuperate at Chequers, he must have been fully aware that a serious situation existed with regard to his chief aide’s actions. (Was anyone else aware?)

Cummings returned to work in London on 14 April and at some point after that went to Chequers to see Johnson. I do not know when that was, but Johnson returned to Downing St on Monday 27 April. It is inconceivable that Cummings would have met Johnson at Chequers without discussing the difficulties entailed in his travelling to Durham instead of complying with the guidelines that everyone else had to follow.

If Johnson is telling the truth when he says that he believes Cummings to have ‘acted legally and with integrity’ then the inference is that he has believed that to be the case for nearly a month – yet he said nothing till 24 May.

On Saturday 25 April The Spectator published an article by Mary Wakefield in which she said  “we emerged from quarantine into the almost comical uncertainty of London lockdown” omitting the fact that they had emerged in Durham and then driven 260 miles to London. She had already broadcast the substance of this article, if not its entirety, on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day that morning. (curiously, this is not available on BBC Sounds, though all subsequent and some previous ones are. It is my distinct recollection that the London reference formed part of the broadcast, which I heard. I do not take The Spectator)

It is difficult to believe that the Prime Minister can have been unaware of that article and that broadcast especially as it was seen at the time as a deliberate distraction from the revelation that Cummings attended SAGE meetings. It is also difficult to believe that the mendacious implication that the Cummings family had spent their isolation in London can have escaped him.

In other words, a month ago the Prime Minister knew both that his chief aide had travelled to Durham in apparent contravention of both isolation and lockdown guidelines and that his wife had published an article and made a broadcast implying that they had remained in London. At the very least he must have seen that the situation called for some explanation. But if we are to believe him, he also thought that Cummings had ‘acted legally and with integrity.’

So why did he wait a month to say so, and then only because he was forced?

It is surely always wiser to control a difficult situation by forestalling it than to wait till you are forced to respond, provided you are in the right and your actions are defensible.

Otherwise you are liable to look as if you are not in the right and that your defence is a desperate contrivance to excuse something you had hoped would not come to light.

*Yet by his own account, he did – to drive his son to hospital, in another highly implausible set of circumstances. Despite having others to hand who could have done it for him (including, I believe, his wife), and the availability of taxis (which Cummings denies but taxi drivers and hospital dispute), he rose from his sickbed and took his wife and son – at a point when he had reason to believe that all three were infectious – by car to hospital. Still, I did say that his wife’s account is mendacious, and presumably she suppressed the bit about the journey to hospital as it might have identified their whereabouts.

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