By Evie Knapman – Sub-Editor
On the 27th March, Dominic Cummings (Boris Johnson’s top aide) drove to his parents’ farm in Durham to isolate with his poorly wife and son. On the 12th April, he drove to Barnard Castle to check his eyesight, then on the 13th of April drove home. In any other time, this series of events would be of minimal interest to the British public. However, Cummings’ actions during the Covid-19 lockdown have sparked furious debate over the morality of his actions, and his obligation to resign.
I believe that Cummings’ actions have received exactly the critique they deserved, for he broke both the letter and the spirit of the lockdown. On the 16th March, Boris Johnson announced that movement would be restricted to ‘essential travel only’. Was Cummings’ journey to Durham essential travel? I would argue not. Both his wife and him were presenting with Covid-19 symptoms when he drove to Durham. His need for childcare for his four-year-old son is apparent. However, it’s hard to believe that given his position in government and London location, there was nobody in the vicinity who could have looked after his son in the event neither his wife nor himself were able to do so. Durham Police have confirmed Cummings broke the lockdown by travelling to Barnard Castle, but the journey to Durham itself should be seen as illegitimate too.
More importantly, Cummings’ actions violated the spirit of the lockdown, setting a wider precedent. The UK’s lockdown laws brought in unprecedented restrictions by limiting actions such as the number of times one can exercise each day. In England you can be charged up to £100 for violating the lockdown. However, especially given the reduced number of police officers in recent years, in practice most people who violate the lockdown will not be held accountable. The government are relying on people following the spirit of the lockdown (staying home to protect the NHS, vulnerable groups and themselves) rather than legal enforceability.
Even if he did not break the letter of the law, he violated the spirit of it by leaving his hometown, especially when he had Covid-19 symptoms. His actions have impacted the strength of the lockdown elsewhere. Professor John Drury says public anger over Cummings’ actions has led some people to reject the guidance to stay home. Covid-19 presents a classic collective action problem; the individual benefits from others social distancing even if they don’t, bringing a temptation to ‘freeride’ on the social distancing of others. To overcome this, the government has relied on a public mentality where following the lockdown is seen as a civic duty, and people follow the example of others. Given Cummings’ instrumental role in government, many will question why they cannot make similar journeys and test the limits of the laws in the way he did.
Cummings’ actions are even more reprehensible as his situation was not unique. Any household consisting of small children and two sick parents would face his problem- sick single parents would face it even more acutely. These families haven’t travelled the length of the country for childcare, so Cummings shouldn’t either. An even more shocking comparison is the horrific case of Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab. This 13-year-old boy died alone in hospital as his parents followed the guidelines at the time- not to enter the hospitals to be with Covid-19 infected family members. Thankfully the guidance of this has changed, but it leads us to ask- why could Cummings break the rules, but not this family? For the many, many people who’ve strictly followed the guidance – which has meant grandparents have not seen grandchildren and those who live alone not having contact for weeks, it stings for Cummings to break the rules.
I strongly believe that Cummings illegitimately stretched the definition of ‘essential travel’ when he journeyed to Durham. More importantly however, his actions will have wider impacts in weakening public compliance with the lockdown and present a clear injustice for those who have experienced great hardship through strictly following the lockdown.