Dominic Cummings’ 260mile trip to County Durham at height of pandemic eroded public trust in Government beyond repair, study confirms
- Dominic Cummings drove 260 miles to County Durham at height of lockdown
- Compliance to social distancing rules in England plummeted after new broke
- University College London found trust in Government has never rebounded
Dominic Cummings’ controversial 260mile trip to Durham at the height of lockdown caused irreparable damage to the public’s trust in Government, research has now confirmed.
Experts said the actions of the Prime Minister’s senior adviser reduced compliance to social distancing rules in England and undermined efforts to control the coronavirus.
Boris Johnson’s chief aide sparked fury when he drove his family from London to visit his parents in County Durham in late May while he was sick with Covid-19.
The scandal also included Mr Cummings driving 30 miles to the popular tourist spot Barnard Castle while in the north east to test his eye sight, risking passing the infection to others.
The messaging coming out of Number 10 at the time was not to leave home unless it was absolutely essential.
Now research published in the prestigious journal the Lancet shows the scandal, which emerged on May 22, led to a sharp drop in public trust in the Government’s handling of the pandemic.
University College London researchers, who carried out the study, said it illustrates ‘the negative and lasting consequences political decisions have on public trust’.
Respondents were asked how much confidence they had in the Government’s handling of the pandemic on a scale of one to seven. Among participants living in England, confidence dropped by roughly 0.4 points on this scale between May 21 and 25. Confidence also dropped on May 11 when ministers set out their three-staged plan to ease lockdown
England’s answers were compared with Scotland (blue) and Northern Ireland (green), where confidence in their leaders remained stable
People’s adherence to lockdown, which was already starting to decline in May after a month-and-a-half of being cooped up in their homes, also fell more rapidly after May 22, particularly in England
Boris Johnson’s chief adviser sparked fury when he drove his family from London to visit his parents in County Durham in late May while he was sick with Covid-19
The study analysed 220,000 survey results from 40,000 participants in University College London’s Covid-19 social study between April and June.
Respondents were asked how much confidence they had in the Government’s handling of the pandemic on a scale of one to seven.
Among participants living in England, confidence dropped by roughly 0.4 points on this scale between May 21 and 25.
The steepest decline was seen on May 25, the same day Mr Cummings’ held an awkward press conference in the Downing Street rose garden.
During his rare public appearance, he claimed he broken lockdown rules to go to Barnard Castle in order to ‘test his eyesight’.
The study found that trust among the English public never rebounded by the time the study finished by June 11.
People’s adherence to lockdown, which was already starting to decline in May after a month-and-a-half of being cooped up in their homes, also fell more rapidly after May 22, particularly in England.
Lead author Dr Daisy Fancourt, of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care said: ‘Public trust in the Government’s ability to manage the pandemic is crucial as it underpins public attitudes and behaviours at a precarious time for public health.’
‘Trust in government decisions and actions relating to the management of Covid-19 is a major challenge globally and these data illustrate the negative and lasting consequences that political decisions can have for public trust and the risks to behaviours.’
The social study was launched in the week before the UK went into lockdown. It tracks how adults are feeling about the lockdown, government advice and overall wellbeing and mental health.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, said the paper was proof the Government’s decision not to sack Mr Cummings was a ‘monumental misjudgment’.
He added: ‘The government rightly asked the British people to make huge sacrifices to drive down infection rates.
‘So to have allowed his most senior advisor to blatantly break the rules undermined vital life saving public health messaging at the peak of this deadly pandemic.’
Reacting to the study, Richard Harris, professor of quantitative social geography at the University of Bristol, said: ‘Containing the spread of a contagious and often fatal disease requires everyone to listen to and to follow the best scientific advice.
‘Whatever the rights or wrongs of Cummings’ behaviour, those in positions of authority have to set the best example or else the already rampant cynicism against politics and politicians is amplified. The result is that public trust is eroded as this study very clearly shows.’
Professor Robert Dingwall, a sociologist at Nottingham Trent University, added: ‘This is a large panel study. Although the panel is not strictly representative of the UK population, the size and weighting processes described should give us a high degree of confidence in the results, even at the level of the various nations.
‘The shift in ‘trust in government’ for England is striking, although it may be too narrow to describe it as uniquely a ‘Cummings Effect’.
‘There had been previous breaches of the rules by other public figures and it may be that the media treatment of the Cummings trip pulled these together as the culmination of a pattern of behaviour rather than as an isolated incident.’
Day by day, how Dominic Cummings described his fateful trip to Durham:
Dominic Cummings faced the media on May 25 to give a day-by-day account of his battle against coronavirus and his controversial journey to his parents’ farm in Durham.
The Prime Minister’s top aide faced an hour-long television grilling at Downing Street after it emerged on Saturday he had travelled 260 miles north from London with his family amid the coronavirus lockdown in March.
He recounted his own battle with the virus, which his wife Mary Wakefield also caught, while insisting he had acted ‘reasonably and legally’ in a ‘very tricky, complicated situation’.
News of the trip sparked fury from NHS staff, bishops and Tory MPs, twenty of whom demanded Mr Cummings’ resignation as Boris Johnson maintained his adviser acted ‘responsibly and with integrity.’
Giving a timeline of events in his own words, Mr Cummings said:
At around midnight on Thursday, March 26, I spoke to the prime minister.
He told me that he tested positive for Covid. We discussed the national emergency arrangements for No 10, given his isolation and what I would do in No 10 the next day.
The next morning, I went to work as usual. I was in a succession of meetings about this emergency. I suddenly got a call from my wife who was at home looking after our four year old child. She told me she suddenly felt badly ill.
She’d vomited and felt like she might pass out. And there’ll be nobody to look after our child. None of our usual childcare options were available. They were alone in the house.
After very briefly telling some officials in No 10 what had happened, I immediately left the building, ran to a car and drove home. This was reported by the media at the time who saw me run out of No 10.
After a couple of hours, my wife felt a bit better. There were many critical things at work and she urged me to return in the afternoon and I did.
That evening, I returned home and discussed the situation with my wife. She was ill. She might have Covid, though she did not have a cough or a fever.
March 27: Dominic Cummings is pictured running out of Downing Street on the day Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock test positive for coronavirus
At this point, most of those who I work with most closely, including the prime minister himself and others who sit within 15ft of me every day, either had had symptoms and had returned to work or were absent with symptoms.
I thought there was a distinct probability that I had already caught the disease. I had a few conflicting thoughts in my mind.
First, I was worried that if my wife and I were both seriously ill, possibly hospitalised, there was nobody in London that we could reasonably ask to look after our child and exposed themselves to Covid.
My wife had felt on the edge of not being able to look after him safely a few hours earlier. I was thinking, what if the same or worse happens to me?
There’s nobody here that I can reasonably ask to help. The regulations make clear, I believe the risks to the health of a small child were an exceptional situation, and I had a way of dealing with this that minimised risk to others.
Second, I thought that if I did not develop symptoms, then I might be able to return to work to help deal with the crisis. There were ongoing discussions about testing government staff in order to keep people like me working rather than isolating.
At this point, on the Friday, advisers such as myself had not been included in the list of who were tested. But it was possible that this might change the following week. Therefore, I thought that after testing negative, I could continue working.
The Prime Minister’s top aide faced an hour-long television grilling at Downing Street today after it emerged on Saturday he had travelled 260 miles north from London with his family
Third, there had been numerous false stories in the media about my actions and statements regarding Covid. In particular, there were stories suggesting that I had opposed lockdown and even then I did not care about many deaths.
These stories had created a very bad atmosphere around my home. I was subject to threats of violence. People came to my house shouting threats.
I was also worried that given the severity of this emergency, this situation would get worse. And I was worried about the possibility of leaving my wife and child at home all day and off into the night while I worked in No 10.
I thought the best thing to do in all the circumstances was to drive to an isolated cottage on my father’s farm. At this farm, my parents live in one house.
My sister and her two children live in another house, and there was a separate cottage roughly 50 metres away from either of them.
My tentative conclusion on the Friday evening was this: if we are both unable to look after our child, then my sister or nieces can look after him. My nieces are 17 and 20. They are old enough to look after him, but also young enough to be in the safest category. And they had extremely kindly volunteered to do so if needed.
But, I thought, if I do not develop symptoms and there is a testing regime in place at work, I could return to work if I tested negative.
In that situation, I could leave my wife and child behind in a safe place, safe in the form of support from family for shopping in emergencies, safe in the sense of being away from home which had become a target and also safe for everybody else because they were completely isolated on a farm and could not infect anybody.
Parents’ home: The home of Cummings’s parents in Durham, 260 miles away, which he visited during lockdown
There are no neighbours in the normal sense of the word. The nearest other homes are roughly half a mile away. So in this scenario, I thought that they could stay there for a few weeks. I could go back to work, help colleagues and everybody, including the general public, would be safe.
I did not ask the prime minister about this decision. He was ill himself and he had huge problems to deal with. Everyday, I have to exercise my judgment about things like this and decide what to discuss with him. I thought I would speak to him when the situation clarified over coming days, including whether I had symptoms and whether there were tests available.
Arguably, this was a mistake, and I understand that some will say that I should’ve spoken to the prime minister before deciding what to do.
So I drove the three of us up to Durham that night, arriving roughly at midnight. I did not stop on the way.
When I woke the next morning, Saturday, March 28, I was in pain and clearly had Covid symptoms, including a bad headache and a serious fever.
Clearly, I could not return to work any time soon. For a day or two, we were both ill. I was in bed.
My wife was ill, but not ill enough that she needed emergency help. I got worse. She got better.
During the night of Thursday, April 2, my child woke up. He threw up and had a bad fever. He was very distressed. We took medical advice which was to call 999.
An ambulance was sent, they assessed my child and said he must go to hospital.
I could barely stand up. My wife went with him in the ambulance. I stayed at home. He stayed the night in the hospital.
In the morning, my wife called to say that he had recovered, he seemed back to normal. Doctors had tested him for Covid and said that they should return home.
There were no taxis. I drove to the hospital, picked them up, then returned home. I did not leave the car or have any contact with anybody at any point on this short trip.
A few days later, the hospital said that he tested negative.
After I started to recover, one day in the second week, I tried to walk outside the house.
At one point the three of us walked into woods owned by my father, next to the cottage that I was staying in. Some people saw us in these woods from a distance, but we had no interaction with them.
We had not left the property. We were on private land.
By Saturday, April 11, I was still feeling weak and exhausted.
But other than that, I had no Covid symptoms. I thought that I’d be able to return to work the following week, possibly part time.
I sought expert medical advice. I explained our family’s symptoms and all the timings, and I asked if it was safe to return to work on Monday, Tuesday, seek child care and so on.
I was told that it was safe and I could return to work and seek childcare.
On Sunday, April 12, 15 days after I had first displayed symptoms, I decided to return to work.
My wife was very worried, particularly given my eyesight seemed to have been affected by the disease.
She didn’t want to risk a nearly 300-mile drive with our child, given how ill I had been.
We agreed that we should go for a short drive to see if I could drive safely.
We drove for roughly half an hour and ended up on the outskirts of Barnard Castle town. We did not visit the castle.
We did not walk around the town. We parked by a river. My wife and I discussed the situation.
We agreed that I could drive safely, and we should turn around and go home.
I felt a bit sick. We walked about 10 to 15 metres from the car to the river bank nearby.
We sat there for about 15 minutes. We had no interactions with anybody. I felt better. We returned the car.
An elderly gentleman walking nearby appeared to recognise me. My wife wished him Happy Easter from a distance, but we had no other interaction.
We headed home. On the way home, our child needed the toilet. He was in the back seat of the car.
We pulled over to the side of the road, my wife and child jumped out into the woods by the side of the road.
They were briefly outside. I briefly joined them. They played for a little bit and then I got out of the car, went outside.
We were briefly in the woods. We saw some people at a distance. But at no point did we break any social distancing rules. We then got back in the car and went home.
‘We drove for roughly half an hour and ended up on the outskirts of Barnard Castle town,’ he said
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
We returned to London on the evening of Monday, April 13, Easter Monday. I went back to work in No 10 the next morning.
At no point between arriving and leaving Durham did any of the three of us enter my parents’ house or my sister’s house. Our only exchanges were shouted conversations at a distance. My sister shopped for us and left everything outside.
In the last few days, there have been many media reports that I returned to Durham after 13 April. All these stories are false.
During this two-week period, my mother’s brother died with Covid. There are media reports that this had some influence on my behaviour. These reports false.
This private matter did not affect my movements. None of us saw him. None of us attended his funeral. In this very complex situation, I tried to exercise my judgment the best I could.
Mr Cummings (pictured today) recounted his own battle with the virus while insisting he had acted ‘reasonably and legally’ in a ‘very tricky, complicated situation’
News of the trip sparked fury from NHS staff, bishops and Tory MPs, twenty of whom demanded Mr Cummings’ resignation as Boris Johnson (pictured today) maintained his adviser acted ‘responsibly and with integrity’
I believe that in all circumstances I behaved reasonably and legally, balancing the safety of my family and the extreme situation in No 10 and the public interest in effective government to which I could contribute.
I was involved in decisions affecting millions of people, and I thought that I should try to help as much as I could do. I can understand that some people will argue that I should have stayed at my home in London throughout.
I understand these views. I know the intense hardship and sacrifice that the entire country has had to go through. However, I respectfully disagree. The legal rules inevitably do not cover all circumstances, including those that I found myself in.
I accept, of course, that there is room for reasonable disagreement about this. I could also understand some people think I should not have driven at all anywhere.
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