The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has defended the behaviour of Downing Street aide Dominic Cummings, who drove from London to Durham during the lockdown, saying: “In moments of crisis, we seek to have our family around us.”
Cummings travelled to his parents’ property at a time when he believed he may have been infected with Covid-19.
Presenting the daily Downing Street briefing, Shapps repeatedly defended Boris Johnson’s senior aide. “As we all do in moments of crisis, we seek to have our family around us,” said Shapps. “He went to where the family was.”
He said Johnson had known about Cummings’s presence in Durham but had been reassured by the fact that his adviser had “stayed put” after travelling.
Shapps said: “The prime minister would have known he was staying put, and he didn’t come out again until he was feeling better … the prime minister provides Mr Cummings with his full support”.
Pressed repeatedly about the aide’s behaviour, Shapps said members of the public would be asking themselves: “What would I do in that situation?”
He continued: “I’ve got a young child, my wife is unwell, I’m worried about the ability to support the child as a father. Do you then end up saying, ‘We’ll take the best possible option in order to provide the best possible care for that child?’”
There was little comfort for Cummings from the deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries. Downing Street had previously cited a comment from Harries, suggesting parents could seek outside help with childcare.
Asked about those comments, she said: “I think the question I was asked was, if two adults were ill and were unable to cope, or care for a small child who was totally dependent on them.” At the time Cummings travelled, he had not yet fallen ill.
Pressed about whether public health advice permitted people with coronavirus to travel, Harries said: “If you’re symptomatic, you stay at home, take yourself out of society as quickly as you can and stay there, unless there’s extreme risk to life.” That exception would not appear to cover Cummings’s situation.
She also appeared to suggest it would only be in circumstances where the welfare of a child was at risk that the rules could be bent.
Harries said: “There is always an element which says, safeguarding: so we don’t want an elderly person sitting at home without their medication because they feel they can’t come out. If there is a safeguarding issue, and a child for example is equally another issue. There’s always a safeguarding clause in all of the advice. The interpretation of that advice is probably for others.”
Shapps was the latest of a series of cabinet ministers who have thrown their weight behind Johnson’s senior adviser, since the Guardian and the Mirror revealed on Friday that Cummings was in Durham, more than 200 miles away from his London home, on 5 April.
After declining to comment about Cummings’s whereabouts during the relevant period for several weeks, Downing Street issued a statement on Saturday morning, conceding he had travelled to Durham but insisting he had done so to secure childcare for his son.
A No 10 spokesman said: “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.
“His sister and nieces had volunteered to help so he went to a house near to but separate from his extended family in case their help was needed. His sister shopped for the family and left everything outside.”
The spokesperson added: “Mr Cummings believes he behaved reasonably and legally.”
The No 10 spokesperson also denied either Cummings or his family had been spoken to by the police about his presence.
That appeared to contradict a statement from Durham constabulary, which told the Guardian: “On Tuesday 31 March, our officers were made aware of reports that an individual had travelled from London to Durham and was present at an address in the city.
“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 guidelines around self-isolation and reiterated the appropriate advice around essential travel.”
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, who is the minister responsible for coronavirus regulations, tweeted that it was “entirely right” for Cummings to find childcare for his toddler. Cummings’s son is four. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, also backed Cummings.
Labour has rejected Number 10’s defence of the cross-country journey, taken at a time when Cummings believed he may have contracted Covid-19. The government’s slogan at the time was “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”.
A Labour spokesperson said: “The lockdown rules were very clear: if you or anyone in your household was suspected of having Covid-19 you must immediately self-isolate and not leave the house. However, the prime minister’s chief adviser appears to believe that it is one rule for him and another for the British people.
“This will cause understandable anger for the millions of people who have sacrificed so much during this crisis.”