I have listened carefully to the allegations against him and to what the Prime Minister and Mr Cummings himself have said about them. As I hope you would expect from your Member of Parliament, I have taken the time to consider my response before giving it. I should say at the outset that I have never met Mr Cummings. I have disagreed with some of his political views and I do not approve of his abrasive approach to political debate, but I have a fundamental belief that everyone’s actions should be judged rationally and objectively, and not on the basis of whether we like them or not.
I think therefore there are 3 things to be considered – first , what it has been established that Mr Cummings did, second, were those things in compliance with or in breach of the regulations and guidance in place at the time and third, what should happen now? Let me take them in turn.
First, what has it been established that Mr Cummings did? He has himself confirmed that he drove several hundred miles from his primary residence before returning approximately 2 weeks later. He has also confirmed that he drove to another location during that 2 week period, about 30 minutes’ drive from the place at which he was staying, to which he returned shortly afterwards. There is no evidence that he broke social distancing rules at any point. The third allegation against him, that he returned to the North East for a second time after his return to London, he denies, saying he has evidence to support his denial. As I write this, I have seen no evidence to demonstrate that he did make such a second trip.
Focussing therefore on the first 2 allegations, was what he did consistent with the wording of the regulations and the guidance in place at the time and, in the relevant respects, still in place now? I have looked again at both. The general intent of the restrictions was and is clear – to ensure everyone stays at their primary residence except either to carry out activities listed as permissible exceptions (such as food shopping or exercise), or in other exceptional circumstances which are, understandably, not listed because they could not all be anticipated. It is on whether Mr Cummings’ initial journey to the North East fell properly within this second category that the question of technical compliance turns. There is language in the regulations and guidance which recognises the difficulty some will have in complying with the restrictions in full if dealing with young children or seeking to help vulnerable individuals. Mr Cummings has relied on this language to justify his decision to make the initial journey to the North East. At the time Mr Cummings made his decision to make the trip and in the circumstances in which he did so, I do not find his decision to be irrational. As the exceptional circumstances which would allow departure from the general prohibition on travel which was in place would inevitably vary and would always need to be judged on their merits, I also think it is arguable that Mr Cummings’ actions in making that first journey could be found to be within the language of the restrictions as they have been set out, though I would want more explanation on one point. Given that Government and scientific advice has been clear that, for most infected with the virus, it would be experienced as a relatively mild illness, I do not think Mr Cummings has yet explained clearly enough why he believed that he and his wife would likely be incapacitated by it, necessitating the actions he then took.
In relation to the second trip – to the Castle Barnard area from his base in the North East – I do not find his reasoning for making this trip (to test his eyesight) persuasive, but it is worth being clear about what the restrictions in place would permit at that stage. As I understand it, Mr Cummings and his wife and child would no longer at that point have been subject to the 14 day quarantine period applied to those with symptoms of Covid 19. Leaving the house for exercise, for example, would have been permissible and although travelling long distances to take that exercise was discouraged, there was at least some variation in the view of what this meant among different police forces charged with enforcement. Again therefore, it can be argued that there was not a technical breach of the regulations and guidance.
However, in determining what should happen now, technical compliance cannot be the only consideration. As a nation, we face extraordinary circumstances at the moment and our response must also be extraordinary. In 70 years there has not been a time when our commitment to collective action has mattered more, and the effectiveness of that action depends on everyone being clear about what they are expected to do. I fear that this episode will reduce that clarity. Our success so far in restricting the spread of the Covid 19 virus has also been largely due to large numbers of people accepting wholeheartedly not just the letter of the restrictions that have been set out, but also their spirit. I know that for many this has meant interpreting the exceptional circumstances clauses in the regulations and guidance very restrictively, and not seeking to use them to justify leaving home, even at very considerable personal cost. Our continued success in combatting the virus may well rely on more of that and Mr Cummings’ actions and his justification of them will, in my judgment, make it less likely that others will continue to interpret those exceptional circumstances clauses restrictively. These are consequences which may undermine the Government’s central objective – to reduce the spread of the virus so as to allow the lifting of restrictions for all of us to be done safely.
I know how difficult it is to serve in Government but I also know that, fairly or unfairly, your actions are subject to greater scrutiny and have greater consequences. What is most important at this point is that Government can give clear messages about how to defeat the virus and that everyone feels motivated to do their best to help. This is more important than the position of any individual in Downing Street and therefore, fairly or unfairly, I have concluded that it would be better for Mr Cummings to leave his position at Downing Street. I have communicated my view and the reasons for it to the Prime Minister.