British Prime Minister Boris Johnson defied pressure from within his own party and backed top aide Dominic Cummings over allegations he breached coronavirus lockdown rules.
Cummings has been a highly divisive figure in British politics since masterminding the successful 2016 Brexit campaign alongside Johnson.
But Johnson rejected calls to sack him after he came under fire for travelling 400km across the country with his wife while she was suffering from symptoms of the disease when the official advice was to isolate at home.
Johnson said during Sunday's news briefing he believed Cummings "acted responsibly and legally and with integrity" after the pair held crisis talks.
"I've concluded that in travelling to find the right kind of childcare at the moment when both he and his wife were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus, and when he had no alternative, I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent," he added.
In a video address shared on his Twitter account late on Sunday, Opposition and Labour leader Keir Starmer said Johnson had “failed to provide answers” to the British public over the matter.
“He didn’t sack him, he didn’t order an investigation. And he treated the British people with contempt.
“He sent a message. One rule for my advisor, another rule for everybody else.”
The Prime Minister has treated the British people with contempt.— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) May 24, 2020
One rule for Dominic Cummings, another for everybody else. pic.twitter.com/XIFCztZnbu
Cummings was seen with his son close to his parents' home in Durham, northeast England, more than 400km away from his London home on March 31, the day after he himself reported suffering symptoms.
The Observer and Sunday Mirror reported that he had broken lockdown restrictions again and was seen in Durham a second time on April 19, days after he had returned to work in London following his first trip north.
A named witness told the newspapers that Cummings was also spotted in the town of Barnard Castle, 30 kilometres from Durham, on April 12. That witness, convinced it was Cummings, filed a complaint with police for a possible breach of the lockdown rules.
Cummings denied the latest claims, which have caused a public outcry, particularly among people who avoided contact with elderly relatives, some of whom died of the virus.
Cummings ‘has to go’
Johnson also announced that primary schools in England are to reopen for some pupils from June 1 as part of the next stage of easing restrictions.
The school announcement however was overshadowed by the continuing row over Cummings.
Deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries said on Saturday there was some room for manoeuvre in the lockdown rules if both parents were ill, saying "all guidance has a common sense element to it, which includes safeguarding around adults or children".
It was still unclear whether Cummings was symptomatic when the family made the journey.
Tory MP Steve Baker, a staunch Brexiteer but critic of Cummings, demanded his sacking, as did another leading eurosceptic, Peter Bone, who said he "has to go".
The message from Starmer was even clearer.
“If I was prime minister, I would have sacked Cummings,” he told Sky News.
Many contrasted the decision to support Cummings with the treatment of Scotland's former chief medical officer and a government scientific adviser, who both had to quit for breaching lockdown rules.
Johnson's backing did little to calm public outrage and sparked questions about his political judgement.
Starmer said Johnson had failed the test and insulted the public who had made huge sacrifices during the crisis.
"The prime minister's actions have undermined confidence in his own public health message at this crucial time," he said.
Cummings was heckled by furious members of the public in the street near his London home following his meeting with Johnson, with his townhouse surrounded by dozens of reporters.
“Would you recommend Barnard Castle for a day out?” one man sarcastically asks in footage showing Cummings walking towards his home.
Shortly after, a van arrived and began playing a message from Boris Johnson to “stay at home”.
After Johnson's statement, the British Civil Service Twitter account posted: "Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?"
It was later deleted and a tweet from the Cabinet Office said it was "unauthorised" and they were investigating the matter.
Thousands of others took to Twitter, while the hashtag #LockdownIsOverThanksDom trending overnight.
An unauthorised tweet was posted on a government channel this evening. The post has been removed and we are investigating the matter.— Cabinet Office (@cabinetofficeuk) May 24, 2020
If the Conservatives truly thought they could weaponise an uncle dying, or learning difficulties in a child, to justify Cummings’ behaviour, then they have just made every parent with a child with learning difficulties, and everyone who has lost a loved one, even angrier.— Peter Jukes (@peterjukes) May 24, 2020
“Incensed doesn’t come close... I haven’t left my house for 10 weeks , other than to walk. I have done the right thing by government directive.. who is this f****** tit Cummings?” former cricketer turned commentator David Lloyd wrote.
Radio host Julia Hartley-Brewer said: “What Cummings did is totally unacceptable.”
Cummings lambasted by right-wing media
Monday's headline on the front page of centre-left newspaper The Guardian read: "No apology, no explanation: PM bets all on Cummings."
Even the right-wing Daily Mail criticised the government: "What planet are they on" it asked.
Cummings also denied reports in The Guardian that police had spoken directly to him or his family about a tip-off they received on March 31 that he was in Durham.
The force insists they spoke to Cummings' father on the telephone but Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Sunday it was the family who had initiated the contact to talk about security arrangements.
Downing Street revealed at the end of March that Cummings was self-isolating with virus symptoms. Johnson was also infected and ended up in intensive care.
Britain has been the worst-affected country in Europe according to official figures, with 36,793 confirmed fatalities, up 118 in the last 24 hours.
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