So much for a nice quiet bank holiday weekend. Up and down the country people have been incandescent with rage that they have stuck to the rules to ‘protect the NHS’, not been able to see sick and dying family members or go to funerals, while Dominic Cummings has been up to Durham and even popped over to Barnard Castle to ‘test his eyesight’ before driving back, meanwhile stopping long enough to appreciate the bluebells.
Did he do enough at yesterday’s press conference to convince us he acted reasonably and legally? If this were a court case and we were the jury, asked to convict him of breaking the rules, I think it’s fair to say he did enough to sow ‘reasonable doubt’.
Two parents of a young child, both ill, would be worried about how their child will be looked after, and if going to see his elderly parents actually meant staying in a spare house on their farm and never actually going near them, then he didn’t endanger them in the way we might have imagined. ‘Staying with my parents’ for most people means just that, as most people don’t have spare houses on their private land.
But how silly we’ve been, not realising the rules, as set out by the Government, allowed for interpretation and meant all along that we could apply personal judgement.
He didn’t apologise. He didn’t think he did anything wrong. The rules apparently made it clear that having small children to look after constituted “exceptional circumstances”.
“The rules are not millions of pages long, setting out what to do in every set of circumstances” he said. “You have to exercise your own judgement”.
The implication is that we’re the mugs for thinking we had to obey the rules.
After a weekend of senior ministers lining up to protect Dom, culminating with the Prime Minister throwing his weight firmly behind him, saying he had “no alternative” but to travel from London to the North East for childcare, the political focus is now shifting to Boris himself and how much it affects his leadership.
Legally the lockdown is in tatters. From the outset different police forces seem to have interpreted the rules differently, with some more heavy handed than others, but thousands of people have received spot fines for breaking lockdown. Those who were arrested and charged must now be thinking they may have good grounds to get their cases overturned (although a review by the CPS two weeks ago already found that all the prosecutions under the new Coronavirus Act have been unlawful).
We had the Attorney General Suella Braverman backing Cummings, saying: ‘Protecting one’s family is what any good parent does’. When has that ever been a defence in law?
Practically speaking, the lockdown has effectively been over since Boris reduced the ‘stay at home’ message to ‘stay alert’ with people interpreting that as they see fit. I’m not a huge fan of Piers Morgan, but I think he spoke for the nation when he said on Saturday:
“I’m not having one rule for these clowns & another for the rest of us.”
That’s also the conclusion that senior scientists have come to, that if people decide the rules don’t matter, the whole Cummings debacle will result in a threat to public health, regardless if he got away with it legally or politically.
But the Prime Minister didn’t bat an eyelid in his press conference.
“I do not believe that anyone in number 10 has done anything to undermine the guidelines”
and apparently saw not a trace of irony in reiterating:
“It’s absolutely vital” that people remain self-isolating “if they have coronavirus symptoms”.
I also spent the whole of Dominic Cummings’ press conference wondering increasingly if I’d been transported to Saudi Arabia. Why couldn’t Mary drive back if they were worried about his eyesight having been affected by the virus?
A question nobody asked, until a couple of hours later when Robert Peston put it to Boris, who batted it away.
Clearly he regards the issue as closed. We’ll see.
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See also: When will the pubs reopen – and how?
See also: When working at home turns out ok