After it was alleged that he broke the government’s lockdown rules, Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson, has been charged with hypocrisy. His (many) critics and detractors have demanded (thus far, unsuccessfully) that he be fired. But do they really believe that any other person acting similarly, and for the same reason, would have been punished? I can’t imagine that they do.
Cummings’s troubles began shortly after the prime minister had tested positive from the virus and he and his wife began to develop coronavirus symptoms. As the parents of a four-year-old, they were concerned that, should they both become incapacitated, their child’s safety and wellbeing would be in jeopardy.
Since March 23, the U.K. has been under a strict government-mandated lockdown, restricting all but essential movements. However, a caveat was also included: “If you have children, keep following this advice to the best of your ability, however, we are aware that not all these measures will be possible.” On March 24, England’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr. Jenny Harris, further clarified that there was leeway for parents of young children. “Clearly if you have adults who are unable to look after a small child. That is an exceptional circumstance,” she said. Clearly. “If the individuals do not have access to care support, formal care support or access to family, they will be able to work through their local authority hubs.” In the Cummings’s case, they did have access to family.
In order to secure contingency childcare for his four-year-old, Cummings drove his family 260 miles from their London home to Durham where his parents live. There, his nieces (aged 17 and 20) had volunteered to care for his child, should this become necessary (which, in the end, it didn’t). Neither Cummings nor his wife had any physical contact with his parents, or any other person, during their trip. They stayed in a separate cottage on their property. After the 14-day quarantine was up, Cummings was cleared by medical experts to be able to go back to work. At the suggestion of his wife, Cummings drove his family 60 miles (round trip) to Barnard Castle to check that he was fit enough to drive back to London. This remains one of the most controversial aspects of his trip — though again, the family did not come into contact with any other people.
The facts of this case have been obscured by sensationalist, confusing, and inaccurate reporting. Take, for example, this “report” from CNN, which claims that Johnson’s refusal to sack Cummings “threatens to wreck Britain’s lockdown.” Or this flat-out false report from the Express that Cummings made more than one trip to Durham. Or this speculative piece from the New Statesman suggesting the reason for his trip was actually his maternal uncle’s death. Perhaps there would have been less outrage if the government had set the record straight sooner with Cummings’s press conference. Nevertheless, now that Cummings has explained himself to the press, the continued media circus (who swarm outside his home with no regard for social-distancing rules) is increasingly absurd.
“I believe I made the right judgment, but I can understand that others may disagree with that,” Cummings said at yesterday’s press conference. For now, his job is safe. Johnson has given his full support, stating that he merely acted as “any father would have.” Cabinet minister Michael Gove has said “caring for your wife and child is not a crime.” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has advised those condemning Cummings to “take a long hard look in the mirror.” What they are effectively saying, then, is that any person would be legally and morally justified to act in this way for this reason. But this isn’t a new standard. It’s the same standard that the law provided for to begin with.
Again, the real measure of whether or not Dominic Cummings acted hypocritically (and so ought to be fired) is whether any other person acting similarly would have, under the rules, been treated more harshly. As yet, the media have presented no such example of someone who has. It’s absolutely right to suggest that there should not be one standard for everyone and another for senior advisers. And by that logic, Dominic Cummings does not deserve to be punished.