LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Britain on Wednesday to move on from what he described as a “very, very frustrating episode” when his closest adviser provoked outrage and scorn for taking a long-distance drive during the coronavirus lockdown.
Dominic Cummings has refused to quit after it was revealed that he had travelled 400 km (250 miles) from London to northern England in March with his four-year-old son and his wife, who was sick at the time, to be close to relatives.
Johnson has repeatedly backed his adviser, and on Wednesday in front of lawmakers, several of whom directly challenged the prime minister, he again voiced his support for a man who, he said, had spent a lengthy amount of time explaining himself.
That strategy appears to be a risky one. Opinion polls show that faith in Johnson has tumbled since the story broke on Friday in The Mirror and The Guardian newspapers, and some of his Conservative lawmakers have called for Cummings to go.
“It’s been a very, very frustrating episode and I understand why people … have been so concerned, because this country is going through a horrendously difficult time,” Johnson told a parliamentary committee.
“(If) what we need to do is to focus on getting the message right … then I think what we need to do really is to move on.”
It was a message his ministers pressed earlier on Wednesday, trying to dampen down the row over Cummings, a divisive figure who is seen by both allies and opponents as Johnson’s most important and influential strategist.
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POLITICS BEFORE PUBLIC HEALTH?
But Yvette Cooper, an opposition Labour lawmaker, said the prime minister was more interested in “trying to protect Dominic Cummings” than giving straight answers on the advice for parents during the lockdown.
“The problem is, that means you are putting your political concerns ahead of clear public health messages,” she said.
Johnson, who suggested she was trying to score political points, announced that a new test and trace programme to better monitor the spread of the virus in the population would launch in England on Thursday.
The programme, which will mass test and identify the contacts of anyone who has been close to a positive case of COVID-19, is seen as crucial to helping the government ease the most stringent lockdown in peacetime history.
Britain is poised to start relaxing measures on non-essential retail shops, schools and possibly to allow more social contact soon for millions of people who have been mostly stuck at home for weeks.
By reopening more sectors of the economy, the government hopes to work towards overcoming the coronavirus crisis, and Johnson said he wanted to announce new details in June or early July on how to spur a recovery.
But the row over Cummings has prompted some to lose faith in the government’s strategy, with many people still unable to understand how a senior official had not broken the rules by driving north for help with childcare when the government repeatedly told people to “stay home” and “save lives”.
Britain has the second highest death toll from the virus globally, with the confirmed tally rising by 412 to 37,460 on Wednesday.
Cummings said he had acted reasonably and not broken the lockdown rules – a position supported by Johnson and senior ministers.
YouGov found 71% of people believed Cummings had broken lockdown rules and 59% thought he should resign.
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