New witnesses cast doubt on Dominic Cummings’s lockdown claims

Matthew Weaver
Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Devastating new claims have emerged that Dominic Cummings further breached the lockdown rules, as Downing Street came under sustained pressure to fire the prime minister’s most senior adviser.

Related: The Observer view: this breach of the lockdown guidelines is a disgrace

The new testimony suggests Cummings left the home where he was staying in Durham to visit a town 30 miles away. He was allegedly spotted back in Durham on 19 April, days after he was photographed in London having recovered from the virus.

At the time, with the country at the peak of the pandemic, the government was insisting that people should be staying at home.

As Cummings faced calls to resign from across the political spectrum, the government was forced to defend his actions.

Ministers insisted he had stayed put once arriving at a property in Durham, where he had travelled after contracting the symptoms of coronavirus to seek the support from his extended family.

Related: In private, Tories were dismayed. In public, they rallied to save Dominic Cummings

But the new claims would appear to demolish this defence and intensify questions over his claim that going there was permitted because he needed childcare while he was sick.

The new accounts also raise fresh questions about his insistence that the initial 264-mile trip to Durham was justified.

The two new witnesses were revealed in a joint investigation by the Guardian/Observer and the Sunday Mirror.

One saw him in Durham on 19 April, days after Cummings was photographed in London having recovered from the virus.

A week earlier Cummings was seen by another witness in Barnard Castle on Easter Day, 30 miles away from Durham, the investigation found. The town, which takes its name from the English Heritage site at its centre, is a popular destination for days out.

Robin Lees, 70, a retired chemistry teacher from the town, says he saw Cummings and his family walking by the Tees before getting into a car around lunch time on 12 April.

Lees said: “I was a bit gobsmacked to see him, because I know what he looks like. And the rest of the family seemed to match - a wife and child. I was pretty convinced it was him and it didn’t seem right because I assumed he would be in London.”

He added: “I went home and told my wife, we thought he must be in London. I searched up the number plate later that day and my computer search history shows that.”

Asked if thought Cummings should resign, Lees, said: “Of course he should. [Catherine] Calderwood [Scotland’s former chief medical officer] resigned after being stupid by visiting her second home. [Government scientific adviser Prof Neil] Ferguson didn’t even go anywhere, it was his mistress, and he had to resign too.

“They didn’t do anything nearly as irresponsible as Cummings. You don’t take the virus from one part of the country to another. It just beggars belief to think you could actually drive when the advice was stay home, save lives. It couldn’t have been clearer.”

When Cummings was apparently recognised a second time on 19 April he was wearing his trademark beanie hat, and was heard commenting on how “lovely” the bluebells were during an early morning Sunday stroll with his wife Mary Wakefield.

The second eyewitness, who declined to be named, said: “We were shocked and surprised to see him because the last time we did was earlier in the week in Downing Street.”

Cummings had been photographed on the 14 April in Downing Street, the first time he had been seen back at work since recovering from the virus.

“We thought ‘he’s not supposed to be here during the lockdown’,” the source said.

“We thought: ‘What double standards, one rule for him as a senior adviser to the prime minister and another for the rest of us.’”

At Saturday’s daily Downing Street press conference, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said Cummings’s actions, first revealed by the Guardian and Daily Mirror, were acceptable because he and his family had remained in isolation after arriving at the property in Durham, rather than travelling away from the property. “The decision here was to go to that location and stay in that location,” he said. “They didn’t then move around from there.”

The deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, said the aim of the advice on self-isolation was to remain “out of circulation”.

Shapps said that the prime minister gave Cummings his full support. He added that he did not know when Boris Johnson became aware of the circumstances of Cummings’s decision to go to Durham.

Asked whether Cummings’s claim that the police had not spoken to his family despite an official statement to the contrary meant that Durham constabulary were lying, he said that he was “not sure where the confusion in that comes in”.

Durham police are standing by their statement on Friday that the Cummings family was reminded of the lockdown rules on 31 March, after he was seen in the city.

No 10 insisted that the family were not spoken to, and Johnson’s chief adviser claimed he did nothing wrong.

It came as figures from the police, church, the health service and the government’s own science advisory group condemned Cummings’s actions and warned that it risked undermining public adherence to the lockdown. Downing Street has also been accused of a cover-up after initial reports that some in No 10 knew he had made the journey.

Last night, Labour demanded a Whitehall inquiry into the trip. In a letter to cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves writes: “The British people do not expect there to be one rule for them and another rule for the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser.”

Meanwhile, the cabinet’s most senior ministers were accused of placing political loyalty over public health, after they launched an orchestrated battle to defend Cummings. Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock, were among those to defend the spin doctor.

Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, said Cummings should be sacked, adding: “It’s rather insulting to the millions who’ve made sacrifices to keep to the government’s own rules for cabinet ministers now to be prioritising the career of Johnson’s spin doctor-in-chief above the public’s health and well-being.”

Nick Baines, the bishop of Leeds, told the Observer: “People have missed being with family members who have died. But, now we learn that there is one rule for the people and another for No 10 and the elite. Ministers have clearly been told to tweet support for Cummings. What price conscience? Or integrity? Or credibility? Or competence at a time when leadership can only be rooted in trust?”

Police warned that the allegations came at a crucial moment in the lockdown, with officers attempting to enforce the rules during a sunny bank holiday. George Peretz QC, a public law barrister, also suggested Cummings could have breached laws put in place to enforce the lockdown.

Downing Street declined to comment on the new claims.