How retired chemistry teacher holds Dominic Cummings’ fate in his hands after spotting him 30 MILES from Durham family home – as Gavin Williamson says PM’s aide has ‘categorically’ denied breaking lockdown rules
- Robin Lees and his walk in Barnard’s Castle on April 12 could prove pivotal in forcing the Prime Minister’s hand
- The Durham local alleges he saw someone who ‘looked like’ Mr Cummings at the Teesdale town 30 miles away from family farm
- If aide confirmed as breaking lockdown would dramatically increase political pressure to sack him
He is the most powerful unelected figure in the Government, but Dominic Cummings’ future as Boris Johnson’s indispensable Svengali could rest in the hands of a retired chemistry teacher.
Robin Lees and his walk in Barnard Castle on April 12 could prove pivotal in forcing the Prime Minister’s hand despite his astonishing defence of his friend, adviser and enforcer last night.
The Durham local alleges he saw someone who ‘looked like’ Mr Cummings at the Teesdale town 30 miles from Durham that day, and the ‘distinctive’ number plate he took down corresponds to Mr Cummings’ car.
Mr Cummings, 47, admits he took his wife Mary Wakefield and four-year-old son 260 miles north to his family’s farm from London at the end of March, when she was suffering from coronavirus-symptoms.
Reasons given have ranged from childcare fears to the death of his uncle, but Mr Johnson said last night he acted with ‘integrity’ and ‘as any father would’.
But he and Downing Street have remained silent over an alleged trip out during his northern isolation for a walk in the picturesque village on April 12 – his wife’s 45th birthday.
Mr Cummings has flatly denied any second trip north in April, despite the claim he was strolling the secluded bluebell glades at Houghall in Country Durham on April 19 – after he had been seen back at work in London.
Critics say the first, admitted trip north, during which the police spoke to Mr Cummings’ father, broke the lockdown, something Downing Street disputes.
The trip to Barnard Castle and the second trip north later in April – when none of the family were ill – would both appear to be clear breaches of the rules being followed by millions of Britons.
Were they to be irrefutably proven, even still friendly – or at least silent – Tories may have no option but to demand his head, for lying to the Prime Minister if nothing else.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was sent out to bat for the Government and Mr Cummings today.
His comments in interviews today left wriggle room for Mr Johnson to axe him if more revelations come to light that disprove his version of events.
Mr Williamson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it was his ‘understanding’ that ‘Dominic Cummings made absolutely clear there was only one trip to Durham’.
‘I have not had a conversation with Dominic Cummings. The Prime Minister had an extensive discussion with Dominic Cummings yesterday – he did a press conference yesterday,’ he added.
‘He made it absolutely clear at the press conference that Dominic Cummings had given him the reassurance that no rules or no laws had been broken but I don’t have any more details than that.’
Pressed on whether he knew if Mr Cummings left the house during his isolation in Durham, Mr Williamson said: ‘Dominic Cummings has, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, has at every stage, Dominic Cummings operated within the rules.
‘He abided by the rules, he abided by the law and that’s what the Prime Minister said yesterday.’
Mr Cummings (pictured today in London) has flatly denied any second trip north in April, when none of his family were ill
Robin Lees says he saw someone who ‘looked like’ Mr Cummings here in Barnard Castle on April 12, and the ‘distinctive’ number plate he took down corresponds to Mr Cummings’ car
Mr Cummings has flatly denied any second trip north in April, despite the claim he was strolling the secluded bluebell glades at Houghall (pictured) in Country Durham on April 19
Mr Williamson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it was his ‘understanding’ that ‘Dominic Cummings made absolutely clear there was only one trip to Durham’.
Never before has an unelected Government adviser been so powerful – and divisive.
The Prime Minister’s right-hand man and self-proclaimed architect of Brexit, Dominic Cummings, has already been depicted in a TV film by Benedict Cumberbatch and was the subject of a BBC documentary this year.
He has seemed to revel in his reputation as the ‘dark puppeteer’ – complete with his scruffy attire, abrupt tone and disdain for the Press. But to many, revelations that he may have breached lockdown rules are a controversial step too far. Here the Mail analyses the allegations against him.
The day Britain was placed into lockdown. Boris Johnson told Britons they should only leave home for one of four reasons: To shop for essential items, to exercise once a day, to travel to and from work where it was ‘absolutely necessary’ or to fulfil medical or care needs.
Those who had any symptoms of coronavirus were told to stay at home for at least seven days. Other members of that household were told they must self-isolate for 14 days.
The Government unveiled its message ‘Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives’ – which would have been drafted with the help of Mr Cummings.
March 27: Dominic Cummings is pictured running out of Downing Street on the day Mr Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock test positive for coronavirus
Mr Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock test positive for coronavirus, while chief medical officer Chris Whitty says he has symptoms of the disease and is self-isolating.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has told the BBC he believes Mr Cummings was last seen in Downing Street on the same day and speculates he may have travelled either on the 27th or 28th.
Such a move would have been hugely at odds with Government guidance as Mr Cummings could have looked after their young child in London while his wife recuperated.
This was also the day Mr Cummings was seen sprinting out of Downing Street.
Downing Street confirms Mr Cummings is suffering from coronavirus symptoms and is self-isolating.
Parents’ home: The home of Cummings’s parents in Durham, 260 miles away, which he visited during lockdown
Asked about Mr Cummings’s health, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman tells reporters: ‘He’s in touch with No10 but he is at home, he is self-isolating, he has some symptoms.’
The same day Durham police are ‘made aware of reports that an individual had travelled from London to Durham and was present at an address in the city’.
The force says officers ‘made contact with the owners of that address who confirmed that the individual in question was present and was self-isolating in part of the house’.
‘In line with national policing guidance, officers explained to the family the arrangements around self-isolation guidelines and reiterated the appropriate advice around essential travel.’
Mr Cummings has insisted the Durham trip was necessary for the well-being of his son. The boy would likely have contracted a mild version of the illness, if at all, by staying with his parents.
In contrast, Mr Cummings’ elderly parents were at a much higher risk of contracting a severe and potentially fatal form of Covid-19 – making his actions appear all the more reckless. Family friends have pointed out that his wife, Mary Wakefield, has a brother, Jack, who lives in London with his own young son. She also has a half-brother, Max, who lives in the capital.
It has also been suggested it may have been more sensible for a family member to travel from Durham south to help the Cummings.
At around 5.45pm, an unnamed neighbour spotted him in his parents’ garden with his son – with Abba’s Dancing Queen being played in the background.
The neighbour said: ‘I got the shock of my life. I was really annoyed. I thought ‘It’s OK for you to drive all the way up to Durham and escape from London’. It’s one rule for Dominic Cummings and one rule for the rest of us.’
In response to questions last week, No10 said Mr Cummings travelled to Durham as his sister and nieces had volunteered to look after his four-year-old son.
At the weekend deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said travelling during lockdown was permissible if ‘there was an extreme risk to life’ with a ‘safeguarding clause’ to prevent vulnerable people being stuck at home with no support. She added that a small child could be considered vulnerable.
But rather than Mr Cummings’ son staying with other family members, he was in fact with his parents in a farmhouse adjoining the main property. Food was left by Mr Cummings’ sister at the door.
The trip would appear to fly in the face of strict lockdown rules as both parents were showing symptoms and could have taken advantage of help elsewhere in London.
March 30 to April 6:
The period for which Mr Cummings’ wife Mary Wakefield describes the family’s battle with coronavirus, in the April 25 issue of the Spectator.
She makes no mention of the trip to Durham and describes the challenges of caring for their son while suffering the symptoms of Covid-19, as well as the apparent severity of her husband’s illness.
‘Day in, day out for ten days he lay doggo with a high fever and spasms that made the muscles lump and twitch in his legs. He could breathe, but only in a limited, shallow way,’ she wrote.
‘After a week, we reached peak corona uncertainty. Day six is a turning point, I was told: that’s when you either get better or head for ICU.
‘But was Dom fighting off the bug or was he heading for a ventilator? Who knew? I sat on his bed staring at his chest, trying to count his breaths per minute.
‘The little oxygen reader we’d bought on Amazon indicated that he should be in hospital, but his lips weren’t blue and he could talk in full sentences, such as: “Please stop staring at my chest, sweetheart.”’
Dominic Cummings continued absence from Downing Street is noticed. Downing Street said at the time that he was working but not from Number 10 and insisted Number 10 is ‘fully operational’.
Number 10 is again contacted for comment regarding Mr Cummings’ trip by the Guardian. Instead of defending the journey, officials decline to comment.
London-to-Durham: The 260-mile journey that Cummings made to reach the home of his parents in Durham
On April 12, his wife’s birthday, Mr Cummings and his family were allegedly spotted 30 miles from Durham in the town of Barnard Castle. Retired chemistry teacher Robin Lees, 70, said he was ‘gobsmacked’.
Although Mr Cummings could have theoretically completed a 14-day isolation period to recover from symptoms, the Government guidance were still clear: Stay at home and avoid unnecessary travel.
Mr Lees told Sky: ‘They looked as if they’d been for a walk by the river. It didn’t seem right because I assumed he would be in London. You don’t take the virus from one part of the country to another.’
Sky News yesterday confirmed the car number plate as belonging to Mr Cummings.
Mr Cummings returns to work for the first time since news he was suffering from coronavirus emerged.
Questions are raised about his adherence to social distancing advice as he is photographed walking in Downing Street with fellow aide Cleo Watson.
A witness claimed to have seen Mr Cummings at Houghall Woods, a beauty spot near his parents’ home in Durham, on April 19.
He was overheard remarking that the bluebells are ‘lovely.’ The witness said: ‘We were shocked and surprised to see him because the last time we did was earlier in the week in Downing Street.
‘We thought ‘He’s not supposed to be here during lockdown’. We thought ‘What double standards, one rule for him as a senior adviser to the Prime Minister, another for the rest of us.’ When asked yesterday whether he had been to Durham a second time in April, Mr Cummings said: ‘No I did not’.
The claim is reported by the Observer and Sunday Mirror on May 24.
Like all good journalists, Mary Wakefield did not miss an opportunity to turn personal difficulty into tantalising copy. As commissioning editor of political magazine The Spectator, the baronet’s daughter described her and her husband’s battle with coronavirus for a late-April edition.
She said she initially contracted symptoms before Mr Cummings rushed home and ‘collapsed.’ She explained: ‘I felt breathless, sometimes achy, but Dom couldn’t get out of bed. Day in, day out for ten days he lay doggo with a high fever and spasms that made the muscles lump and twitch in his legs. He could breathe, but only in a limited, shallow way.’
Then, in a conclusion which contradicts the sightings in Durham, she said the family ’emerged from quarantine into the almost comical uncertainty of London lockdown.’
Rumours begin to circulate on social media that Mr Cummings had again been seen in the Durham area. A police source yesterday told the Telegraph officers contacted Mr Cummings’ father around this time but were assured the sightings were not true.
The Government lifts the restriction on how far people can drive to reach the countryside and take exercise, but visits and overnight stays to second homes remain prohibited.
News breaks in the Mirror and the Guardian of Mr Cummings’ trip to Durham.
While there is no comment from Downing Street, close friends of Mr Cummings say: ‘He isn’t remotely bothered by this story, it’s more fake news from the Guardian. There is zero chance of him resigning.’
Downing Street appears to be standing by the PM’s chief aide, saying in a statement: ‘Owing to his wife being infected with suspected coronavirus and the high likelihood that he would himself become unwell, it was essential for Dominic Cummings to ensure his young child could be properly cared for.
‘At no stage was he or his family spoken to by the police about this matter, as is being reported.’
Speaking to reporters outside his home, Mr Cummings says: ‘I behaved reasonably and legally.’
When a reporter suggests his actions did not look good, he replies: ‘Who cares about good looks? It’s a question of doing the right thing. It’s not about what you guys think.’
Later at the daily Downing Street briefing, Mr Shapps says Mr Cummings has the PM’s ‘full support’ and that Mr Johnson ‘knew that he was unwell and that he was in lockdown’.
Mr Shapps says it had always been permissible for families to travel to be closer to relatives as long as they ‘go to that location and stay in that location’.
Meanwhile, the deputy chief medical officer for England, Jenny Harries, says travelling during lockdown was permissible if ‘there was an extreme risk to life’, with a ‘safeguarding clause’ attached to all advice to prevent vulnerable people being stuck at home with no support.
In a new statement released later in the evening, Durham police say officers were made aware on March 31 that Mr Cummings was present at an address in the city.
The force adds that the following morning an officer spoke with Mr Cummings’ father at his own request, and he confirmed his son had travelled with his family to the North East and was ‘self-isolating in part of the property’.
It says the force ‘deemed that no further action was required. However, the officer did provide advice in relation to security issues’.
In another evening statement, a No 10 spokeswoman accuses the Mirror and Guardian of writing ‘inaccurate’ stories about Mr Cummings, including claims that he had returned to Durham after going back to work in Downing Street on April 14.
‘We will not waste our time answering a stream of false allegations about Mr Cummings from campaigning newspapers,’ the spokeswoman says.
Asked by a journalist outside his home whether he had returned to Durham in April, Mr Cummings says: ‘No, I did not.’
A host of Tory MPs call for him to resign or for Mr Johnson to sack him.
But the PM, who fronts the daily Downing Street briefing, firmly backs Mr Cummings, saying his aide acted in the best interests of his child, in a way ‘any parent would frankly understand’.
He insists Mr Cummings ‘acted responsibly, legally and with integrity’.
But the PM’s comments fail to quell anger among Tory MPs, opposition parties, scientists and even bishops – one of whom accuses Mr Johnson of treating the public ‘as mugs’.
Durham councillor Amanda Hopgood says she has written to Durham Constabulary’s Chief Constable Jo Farrell after being made aware of a number of sightings of Mr Cummings in the area in April and May.
Mr Cummings’ parents Morag and Robert defend him in an interview with the New Statesman, with his mother saying the family had been grieving after her brother – Lord Justice Laws – died on April 5 after contracting Covid-19 while ill in hospital, and his father saying he was ‘disgusted’ at the way the press had treated his son during the coverage.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson adds his support for Mr Cummings, saying he should not resign ‘because he has made it clear that he’s broken no rules and he’s broken no laws’.
Gloucestershire’s independent police and crime commissioner Martin Surl says Mr Cummings’ actions make a ‘mockery’ of police enforcement earlier in the lockdown ‘when the message was very, very clear: stay at home’.
Tory MP David Warburton says his own father died alone as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, and that the Cummings story gives an impression of ‘double standards’.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says she fears Mr Johnson is ‘putting his political interest ahead of the public interest’ and adds that she hopes he will ‘reflect further’ on the matter.
Durham’s Police and Crime Commissioner today urges the local chief constable to launch a formal investigation into Dominic Cummings’ lockdown visit to the city Acting PCC Steve White writes to Jo Farrell to ask her to probe the facts around Mr Cummings’ trip and to determine wether there was ‘any potential breach of the law or regulations in this matter’.
Mr White says there was a ‘plethora of additional information circulating in the public domain which deserves appropriate examination’. If the chief constable agrees to look into the matter it raises the prospect of the police examining ANPR or phone data to determine the aide’s movements.
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