The former chief constable of Durham police has launched a strident attack on Dominic Cummings and the government defending him, branding them self-privileged hypocrites who have damaged the fight against coronavirus at a time of national emergency.
Mike Barton, who stepped down as chief constable last year, said the government’s defence of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser – who travelled from London to Durham after his wife came down with Covid-19 symptoms – was causing extensive damage as police try to get the public to obey lockdown rules.
He told the Guardian: “It is clear he has broken the rules. It could not be clearer. I cannot think of a worse example of a breach of the lockdown rules. For it then to be defended by the government just beggars belief.”
Barton said the rules were clear: that anyone with symptoms of coronavirus should not leave their home.
“What is particularly sad and undermines completely the government position is they seem to be operating in a bubble of self-privilege and denial when they all should be leading by example. ‘Hypocrite’ was invented for these circumstances … Of course it is double standards.”
Barton added: “It feels like feudal times. We make the rules and it is for you, the great unwashed, to follow them.”
It has emerged that police were unaware Cummings had travelled to his parents’ farm in Durham with his wife and son at the end of March, until his father informed them.
Robert Cummings asked a friend to contact officers because he wanted security advice. Months earlier, he got security advice in relation to his son from Durham police, but had mislaid the contact details, it is understood.
On 31 March, Robert Cummings contacted someone who he knew had details of a senior officer in the Durham force, and that senior officer arranged for Special Branch to contact Cummings’s father. During that call, advice was given by the Special Branch officer on both security and physical distancing under lockdown rules.
The Durham force is understood to have been dismayed by a Downing Street statement on Saturday which wrongly claimed police had not spoken to anyone from the Cummings family about his journey from London.
Cummings’s father was spoken to again by police earlier this month after they became aware of fresh claims on social media and media inquiries about whether the aide had again been seen in the Durham area.
Cummings Snr denied the claim, and said his son was not present at the family farm. Police accepted his word.
In a statement issued on Saturday evening, Durham police said: “On Tuesday, 31 March, our officers were made aware that Dominic Cummings had travelled from London to Durham and was present at an address in the city. At the request of Mr Cummings’ father, an officer made contact the following morning by telephone.
“During that conversation, Mr Cummings’ father confirmed that his son had travelled with his family from London to the north-east and was self-isolating in part of the property.”
In a statement issued on Friday, Durham police had said: “In line with national policing guidance, officers explained to the family the guidelines around self-isolation and reiterated the appropriate advice around essential travel.” No further action was taken.
Barton attacked the government’s defence of Cummings, including the performance by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, at the daily Downing Street briefing on Saturday.
“The government are coming out with weasel words and sophistry,” Barton said. “For Mr Shapps to be obviously making it up as he goes long shames the government, shames him and shames us all as a country. It is blatantly stupid what they are suggesting.”
Under Barton’s leadership, the Durham force was rated as one of the best-performing in the country by official inspectors. Jo Farrell, the current chief constable, who is dealing with the Cummings allegations, was Barton’s deputy.
Barton warned of wider and serious consequences, saying: “They [ministers] have driven a coach and horses through these crucial guidelines at a time of national emergency, simply to save the skin of one of their own.
“This is not just Dominic Cummings. This is many members of the cabinet supporting someone who has clearly broken the guidelines, their guidelines, at a time of national emergency. I find it amazing they are changing the rules to save his skin.”
The former chief constable warned it would make the police’s job harder: “I feel for the thousands of officers negotiating to get people to do what they do not want to do. This makes the job of policing the lockdown harder. It gives a green light for people to do what they want.”
He warned that the Conservatives, who gained power after winning seats in Labour’s traditional northern heartlands, were damaging themselves. “They are on probation,” he said. “People who voted for them, I’m not sure they wanted to bring into power this conceited self-privilege that has been on display for the past 48 hours.”
Barton said his former force had handled the matter well. Under his leadership, Durham police pioneered alternatives to prosecutions and Barton said prosecuting or fining Cummings would have been pointless. He said: “Fining people does not bring the R rate down. What brings it down is people following the rules.”
Durham police tried to avoid punishing people for lockdown breaches. It has been one of the forces to issue the fewest fines, at about 137 between 27 March and 11 May, compared with North Yorkshire police’s 843.