Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, and a Very British Debate About Rules


At a parliamentary hearing in the United Kingdom, on Wednesday, which was conducted by videoconference, Yvette Cooper, a senior member of the Labour Party, asked Prime Minister Boris Johnson if he could sort through some of the wreckage of his Conservative government’s coronavirus-lockdown policies, in the wake of a scandal involving Dominic Cummings, his senior adviser. Cummings was already a polarizing figure in British politics; he was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in a television drama about the 2016 Brexit referendum, in which he had helped to engineer the Leave side’s winning campaign. But the revelation, last week, that Cummings and his wife, Mary Wakefield, a columnist for The Spectator, and their four-year-old son had driven two hundred and sixty miles to relocate from London to his father’s farm, near Durham, in the North of England, after Wakefield developed COVID-19 symptoms, seems close to uniting the country in outrage. The journey appears to violate the plain language of the government’s rules; so does a side trip that they took to Barnard Castle, a scenic town a half-hour drive from the farm, after Cummings, too, had developed symptoms. Cummings said that he had every right to consider what was best for his child. At a press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street, on Monday, he argued that the rules actually allowed such discretion, which was news to the general public. His defense was, essentially, that everybody else had been reading the rules incorrectly, and only he had got it right.

Specifically, Cooper asked if Johnson’s instructions to parents with COVID-19 symptoms remain, as they had been, to “stay at home unless there is a risk to life” and, in a crisis, to contact “community hubs” or other social services. (Travel rules are stricter in the United Kingdom than in the United States; generally speaking, people with symptoms are not supposed to leave home at all for fourteen days after the onset of symptoms, nor is anyone else in their household. There is also an instruction that no one should relocate to a second home, even to isolate, with few exceptions.) Cooper noted that members of Johnson’s government are now suggesting that parents can travel to wherever they have a “support network”—Cummings said that his nieces, who live in another house on the family farm, stood ready to babysit. She asked which was correct: The rules as written? Or, as Robert Jenrick, Johnson’s Secretary for Communities, put it this week: “If you don’t have ready access to child care, you can do as Dominic Cummings did”? Members of the government have also given conflicting answers about whether people who have received fines, which can be as much as a hundred pounds, for breaking travel rules for reasons involving children might now have the penalty rescinded, and whether there will still be such fines going forward. In defending Cummings, in other words, was the government contorting the coronavirus guidelines—“saying all these fudgy things,” as Cooper put it—to fit his actions?

Based on Johnson’s reply, it sounded as though it is doing just that. “I’m not certain that there is as much of a discrepancy as you suggest,” Johnson told Cooper. He noted that the guidelines already say that, “if you’ve got ‘exceptional’ difficulties with child care, you should take account of them.” She replied, “O.K., but we’re not talking about ‘exceptional’ difficulties with child care. We’re talking about the very normal difficulties with child care.” British journalists have noted that the “exceptional” clause was added to address circumstances where all possibilities had been exhausted or lives were at risk—for example, in which parents and children are dealing with domestic violence—not for well-connected, well-resourced couples who worry, as Cummings said he did, that, if they both became ill, they might not have a niece nearby to call on.

When the family left London, late on March 27th, Wakefield was only somewhat ill, and Cummings, by his account, did not yet have symptoms. As things turned out, nieces weren’t necessary: although Cummings became quite ill, Wakefield did not. There is no doubt that the situation would have been frightening. When, at one point, their son became ill, Wakefield rode with him in an ambulance to a hospital in Durham, and Cummings picked them up the next morning. (The boy tested negative for the coronavirus.) And yet the situation was frightening for many people in similar and worse circumstances. Cummings, at his press conference, said that it seemed to him that he “was in such an exceptional circumstance” that he could adapt the rules as he judged fit. One reporter, speaking for many, said that he was “staggered” to hear it. The British rules are strict, which is why the government sold them to the public with talk of shared sacrifice and the spirit of the Blitz. A number of reporters brought up heartbreaking stories that they’d heard from people who, because they’d followed the guidelines, weren’t able to support stricken relatives or see them before they died. Those people “feel like mugs now,” one said. As Laura Kuenssberg, of the BBC, summed it up, what angers many Britons is the sense that there “is one version of the rules for you, and one version of the rules for everyone else.”

It didn’t help that Cummings and others in the government had obfuscated his movements; the story only came out after a joint investigation by the Guardian and the Daily Mirror. In a YouGov poll conducted on Monday, after the press conference, seventy-one per cent of respondents felt that Cummings had straight-out broken the rules. Even forty-six per cent of Tories thought so. The numbers are striking, given how closely Cummings is associated with Johnson, with Brexit, and with the Tories’ victory in this year’s general election, which he also helped to manage, and how forcefully Johnson has defended him.

Cummings’s rationalizations veer from arrogance to downright loopiness. For example, why, on April 12th, when they had been in Durham for two weeks, did the whole family drive thirty miles to Barnard Castle? Simple, Cummings said. Downing Street needed him, and had received “medical advice” that he could go back to work. But he was “weak” and his “eyesight seemed to have been affected by the disease”; his vision was “a bit weird.” And so he and Wakefield “agreed that we should go for a short drive to see if I could drive safely.”

The idea that a jaunt to a picturesque town was, in reality, a vision test provoked mockery; it also occasioned a warning from the chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales that people shouldn’t drive when their vision is impaired. And there were more questions: Couldn’t Wakefield have driven? Couldn’t Johnson have sent a car, if Cummings’s presence was crucial? (Cummings says that he mentioned that he was in Durham to Johnson, who, at the time, was also ill with COVID-19.) And, if he was not only weird-visioned but exhausted and indeed “sick” enough to have to sit by the river in Barnard Castle for a quarter of an hour to settle himself, why was he planning to go back to Downing Street? (He drove to London the next day, and was at work the following morning.) Peggy Mordaunt, a senior Tory, raised that point in a letter to her constituents, noting that there were “inconsistencies” in Cummings’s account. She added that “there is no doubt he took risks,” and that the public-health message had been “undermined.”

Amy Davidson Sorkin

2020-05-28 17:51:15

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