Aide For U.K. Prime Minister Criticized For Traveling During Lockdown

May 25, 2020
Originally published on May 25, 2020 8:24 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under intense fire again. This time, it's because he's refused to discipline his chief adviser after he was outed for driving 260 miles across the country during a coronavirus travel ban. Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Dominic Cummings says he drove from London in late March to his parents' house in the northeast of England seeking help with child care for his 4-year-old son after his wife came down with COVID-19 symptoms. But witnesses told British newspapers they spotted Cummings, who also contracted the virus, traveling in the region again in April. This was when almost everyone else in the country was following the government's rules and staying home to avoid spreading the disease. At a press conference yesterday, the prime minister rejected widespread calls to fire Cummings and instead praised him.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent. I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly and legally and with integrity.

LANGFITT: Earlier this year, two other government advisers in the U.K. resigned after being caught violating lockdown. But Cummings remained defiant, ordering reporters to social distance yesterday when they tried to interview him outside his London house. The episode and Johnson's response to it have sparked widespread condemnation. "What Planet Are They On?" screamed a headline in The Daily Mail, a tabloid newspaper. Bishops in the Church of England said Johnson, quote, "had no respect for the people." Even the official U.K. civil service Twitter account jumped in, calling Johnson and Cummings, quote, "arrogant and offensive," adding can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters? The post was quickly deleted.

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KEIR STARMER: One rule for the prime minister's advisers, another rule for everybody else.

LANGFITT: That's how Keir Starmer, the new leader of the opposition Labour Party, characterized Johnson's response. Starmer told Britain's Sky TV news yesterday he wants an investigation.

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STARMER: Millions of people across the country have made the most agonizing choices not to visit relatives, some of whom were ill, dying, not to go to funerals. They deserve better answers than they got from the prime minister today.

LANGFITT: Some scandals here dissipate quickly, but this one feels more personal and tangible. It's easy to understand why Johnson wants to keep his adviser. Cummings, a household name in the U.K., was the architect behind the successful 2016 Brexit referendum campaign and Johnson's massive electoral victory in December. But if the prime minister continues to stick by his man, he could well pay a political price for it.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.