New witnesses cast doubt on Dominic Cummings’s lockdown claims

Exclusive: eyewitness says top No 10 aide left isolation to go 30 miles to popular tourist town

Devastating new claims have emerged that Dominic Cummings further breached the lockdown rules, as Downing Street came under sustained pressure to fire the prime minister’s most senior adviser.

The new testimony suggests Cummings left the home where he was staying in Durham to visit a town 30 miles away on 12 April.

He was allegedly spotted back in Durham on 19 April, days after he was photographed in London having recovered from the virus, suggesting that following his first trip across the country at the end of March he had made a second journey from the capital to north-east England. At the time, with the UK at the peak of the pandemic, the government was insisting that people should be staying at home.

As Cummings faced calls to resign from across the political spectrum, the government was forced to defend his actions.

Ministers insisted he had stayed put once arriving at a property in Durham, where he had travelled after contracting the symptoms of coronavirus to seek the support from his extended family.

But the new claims would appear to demolish this defence and intensify questions over his claim that going there was permitted because he needed childcare while he was sick.

The new accounts raise fresh questions about his insistence that the initial 264-mile trip to Durham was justified, and led to a new round of calls for the spin doctor to quit.

The two new witnesses were revealed in a joint investigation by the Guardian/Observer and the Sunday Mirror. One saw him in Durham on 19 April, days after Cummings was photographed in London having recovered from the virus.

A week earlier Cummings was seen by another witness in Barnard Castle on Easter Day, 30 miles away from Durham, the investigation found. The town, which takes its name from the English Heritage site at its centre, is a popular destination for days out.

Robin Lees, 70, a retired chemistry teacher from the town, says he saw Cummings and his family walking by the Tees before getting into a car around lunchtime on 12 April.

Lees said: “I was a bit gobsmacked to see him, because I know what he looks like. And the rest of the family seemed to match – a wife and child. I was pretty convinced it was him and it didn’t seem right because I assumed he would be in London.”

He added: “I went home and told my wife, we thought he must be in London. I searched up the number plate later that day and my computer search history shows that.”

Asked if he thought Cummings should resign, Lees said: “Of course he should. [Catherine] Calderwood [Scotland’s former chief medical officer] resigned after being stupid by visiting her second home. [Government scientific adviser Prof Neil] Ferguson didn’t even go anywhere, it was his mistress, and he had to resign too.

“They didn’t do anything nearly as irresponsible as Cummings. You don’t take the virus from one part of the country to another. It just beggars belief to think you could actually drive when the advice was stay home, save lives. It couldn’t have been clearer.”

When Cummings was apparently recognised a second time on 19 April, he was wearing his trademark beanie hat, and was heard commenting on how “lovely” the bluebells were during an early morning Sunday stroll with his wife Mary Wakefield.

The second eyewitness, who declined to be named, said: “We were shocked and surprised to see him because the last time we did was earlier in the week in Downing Street.”

Cummings had been photographed on 14 April in Downing Street, the first time he had been seen back at work since recovering from the virus.

“We thought: ‘He’s not supposed to be here during the lockdown,’” the source said.

“We thought: ‘What double standards, one rule for him as a senior adviser to the prime minister and another for the rest of us.’”

At Saturday’s daily Downing Street press conference, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said Cummings’s actions, first revealed by the Guardian and Daily Mirror, were acceptable because he and his family had remained in isolation after arriving at the property in Durham, rather than travelling away from the property.

“The decision here was to go to that location and stay in that location,” he said. “They didn’t then move around from there.”

The deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, said the aim of the advice on self-isolation was to remain “out of circulation”.

Shapps said that the prime minister gave Cummings his full support. He added that he did not know when Boris Johnson became aware of the circumstances of Cummings’s decision to go to Durham.

Asked whether Cummings’s claim that the police had not spoken to his family, despite an official statement to the contrary, meant that Durham constabulary were lying, he said that he was “not sure where the confusion in that comes in”.

Durham police are standing by their statement issued on Friday that the Cummings family was reminded of the lockdown rules on 31 March, after he was seen in the area.

After Downing Street contradicted the official police statement and said that “at no stage was [Cummings] or his family spoken to by the police”, Durham police provided details of a conversation with Cummings’s father, saying that “at the request of Mr Cummings’s father, an officer made contact” and that Cummings’s father confirmed his son had travelled to the property.

Downing Street has also been accused of a cover-up after initial reports that some in No 10 knew Cummings had made the journey.

Labour, the Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats have written to the head of the civil service, Sir Mark Sedwill, demanding an inquiry into what happened. The latest claims led to fresh calls on Saturday night for Cummings to resign.

The SNP’s leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, called on the cabinet secretary to investigate the “rule-breaking and the Tory government’s cover-up” of Cummings’s journey to Durham.

Acting Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said: “If Dominic Cummings is now allowed to remain in place a moment longer, it will increasingly be the prime minister’s judgment that is in the spotlight.”

Meanwhile, the cabinet’s most senior ministers were accused of placing political loyalty over public health, after they launched an orchestrated battle to defend Cummings. Michael Gove, Matt Hancock, Dominic Raab and Rishi Sunak were among those to defend the spin doctor.

A Labour source, commenting to the PA Media news agency about the new allegations, said: “If these latest revelations are true, why on earth were cabinet ministers sent out this [Saturday] afternoon to defend Dominic Cummings?

“We need an urgent investigation by the cabinet secretary to get to the bottom of this matter. It cannot be right that there is one rule for the prime minister’s adviser and another for the British people.”

Police warned that the allegations came at a crucial moment in the lockdown, with officers attempting to enforce the rules during a sunny bank holiday. George Peretz QC, a public law barrister, also suggested Cummings could have breached laws put in place to enforce the lockdown.

Downing Street declined to comment on the new claims before publication.

On Saturday night, after initial online publication, it issued this statement: “Yesterday [Friday] the Mirror and Guardian wrote inaccurate stories about Mr Cummings. Today [Saturday] they are writing more inaccurate stories including claims that Mr Cummings returned to Durham after returning to work in Downing Street on 14 April. We will not waste our time answering a stream of false allegations about Mr Cummings from campaigning newspapers.”


Matthew Weaver

The GuardianTramp

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