Dominic Cummings has sought to defend his decision to drive to County Durham despite the coronavirus lockdown restrictions, saying he believes he behaved “reasonably” and does not regret his actions.
The political storm over the journey by the Prime Minister’s chief adviser overshadowed the latest announcement on lockdown easing by Boris Johnson, with all shops set to reopen next month.
In a highly unusual press conference in the rose garden of 10 Downing Street, Mr Cummings said he made the journey because of fears over a lack of childcare if he became incapacitated with the virus, and concerns about his family’s safety.
The aide said stories which suggested he had opposed the lockdown and “did not care about many deaths” had “created a very bad atmosphere around my home” – and people “came to my house shouting threats”.
He said he was concerned the situation would “get worse”, and was “worried about the possibility of leaving my wife and child at home all day and often into the night while I worked in Number 10”.
His wife, the journalist Mary Wakefield, fell ill on March 27 – which led to Mr Cummings’ decision to swiftly leave Number 10 – actions that were caught on camera.
After a couple of hours, his wife felt better and Mr Cummings returned to Downing Street.
But he said that evening he discussed the situation with his wife – including the fact that many in Number 10 had developed coronavirus symptoms.
Mr Cummings said he was worried that if both he and his wife fell ill, there was “nobody in London we could reasonably ask to look after our child and expose themselves to Covid”.
The family drove to Durham that evening and did not stop on the way, he said. They stayed in an “isolated property” on his father’s farm, where the following day he woke up in pain and “clearly had Covid symptoms”.
Mr Cummings said that by April 11 he was still feeling “weak and exhausted” but had no Covid symptoms, so thought he would be able to return to work the following week – possibly part-time.
“It was obvious that the situation was extremely serious, the Prime Minister had been gravely ill, colleagues were dealing with huge problems and many were ill or isolating,” he explained.
“I felt that I should be able to return to work if possible given I was now recovering in order to relieve the intense strain at Number 10.”
But he said that because his eyesight had been affected by the disease, his wife did not want to risk the long drive back to London, so they went on a “short drive” to Barnard Castle.
He added: “My wife was very worried, particularly as my eyesight seemed to have been affected by the disease. She did not want to risk a nearly 300-mile drive with our child given how ill I had been.
“We agreed that we should go for a short drive to see if I could drive safely, we drove for roughly half an hour and ended up on the outskirts of Barnard Castle town.
“We did not visit the castle, we did not walk around the town.”
Mr Cummings said he had felt a “bit sick” so they had walked about 10 to 15 metres to the riverbank where they sat for about 15 minutes until he felt better, but that he had no other interaction.
The family returned to London on April 13, and he went back to work the next day, Mr Cummings said.
In the hour-long press conference, Mr Cummings declined to apologise for his actions, but conceded that “reasonable people may well disagree about how I thought about what to do in the circumstances”.
However, he said: “I don’t regret what I did…
“I think what I did was actually reasonable in these circumstances. The rules made clear that if you are dealing with small children that can be exceptional circumstances.
“And I think that the situation that I was in was exceptional circumstances, and the way that I dealt with it was the least risk to everybody concerned if my wife and I had both been unable to look after our four-year-old.”
And he said: “I don’t think I’m so different, and I don’t think there’s one rule for me and one rule for other people.”
Mr Cummings said he “tried to exercise my judgment the best I could”.
He added: “I believe that in all the circumstances I behaved reasonably and legally, balancing the safety of my family and the extreme situation in Number 10 and the public interest in effective government to which I could contribute.
“I was involved in decisions affecting millions people and I thought that I should try to help as much as I could do.
“I can understand that some people will argue that I should have stayed at home in London throughout.
“I understand these views, I know the intense hardship and sacrifice the entire country has had to go through. However, I respectfully disagree.”
Mr Cummings said that at “no point” during his time in Durham did “any of the three of us enter my parents’ house or sister’s house”.
He said their only exchanges were “shouted conversations at a distance” and his sister left shopping outside for them.
Mr Cummings denied going back to Durham after returning to London on April 13, as has been reported, and insisted photos and data on his phone “prove this to be false”.
He also said reports that the death of his uncle, who had coronavirus, had influenced his behaviour were “false”.
He said: “This private matter did not affect my movements, none of us saw him, none of us attended his funeral.”
Mr Johnson later told the daily Downing Street press conference that he regretted the “confusion and anger” caused by the row.
The PM said: “Do I regret what has happened? Yes, of course I do regret the confusion and the anger and the pain that people feel.”
He added: “This is a country that has been going through the most tremendous difficulties and suffering in the course of the last 10 weeks and that’s why I really did want people to understand exactly what had happened.”
When asked if he was prepared to revisit his decision to support Mr Cummings, Mr Johnson said that he could not give anyone “unconditional backing”.
But he stressed that he did not believe that any of his staff in Downing Street had done anything to undermine the lockdown messaging.
Mr Johnson announced that all shops across England will be able to open next month if they can meet the coronavirus guidelines to protect shoppers and workers.
The Department for Health said 36,914 people have died after testing positive for coronavirus as of 5pm on May 24.
A spokesman for the Labour Party said: “The British people were looking for at least an apology from Dominic Cummings for breaking the lockdown. They got none.
The message from this Government is clear: it's one rule for Boris Johnson's closest adviser, another for everybody elseLabour Party spokesman
“Millions of people have made extraordinary sacrifices during the lockdown. Families have been forced apart, sometimes in the most tragic of circumstances. They stayed at home to protect the NHS and save lives.
“And yet, the message from this Government is clear: it’s one rule for Boris Johnson’s closest adviser, another for everybody else.”
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford MP said Boris Johnson had “no option” but to sack Dominic Cummings, and his failure to do “is a gross failure of leadership”.
He added: “What should have been a resignation statement turned out to be a botched PR exercise that changes nothing. It is now beyond doubt Dominic Cummings broke multiple lockdown rules.
“There was no apology and no contrition from Mr Cummings for his behaviour – and now, following this unrepentant press conference, there are no excuses left for him.
“He has done nothing but double down on the double standards he has displayed and which millions of people across the UK are furious about.”