Furor against UK top aide lingers, could weaken lockdown compliance

Protestors hold placards calling for the resignation of Dominic Cummings, top adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, outside the entrance to Downing Street in central London on May 27, 2020.

Try as he might, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson can’t seem to shake a scandal involving his top adviser that has suddenly become a lightning rod for everything the public believes is wrong with the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For days, Mr. Johnson has defended Dominic Cummings, who helped engineer the Conservatives’ overwhelming election victory last December and has guided the government’s Brexit policy. Mr. Cummings has admitted that he drove more than 400 kilometres to a family farm in late March just after the government imposed a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. He said Monday that he and his wife were sick at the time and made the trip in order to take their four-year-old son to stay with relatives while they recovered elsewhere.

His explanation and Mr. Johnson’s defence of him over the past three days have done little to stem the public outrage. About 40 Conservative MPs – roughly 10 per cent of Mr. Johnson’s caucus – have called on Mr. Cummings to resign. Junior cabinet minister Douglas Ross quit in protest. And even though the lockdown measures contain provisions for vulnerable people at risk, opinion polls show that up to 80 per cent of people believe Mr. Cummings went too far and broke the rules.

More troubling for Mr. Johnson is the damage the scandal has done to the government’s pandemic strategy. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed in a poll for The Daily Mail said Mr. Cummings’s actions made it less likely that they would follow lockdown rules.

The government has already faced disenchantment over its approach to the pandemic, which has killed almost 40,000 people in Britain, the highest death toll in Europe. There has been confusion over the reopening of schools next week and mixed messaging about the imposition of a 14-day quarantine for international travellers, which starts on June 8. There is also anger over the growing number of deaths in long-term care homes and concern among public-health experts that Britain waited too long to begin a comprehensive testing program.

Mr. Cummings’s conduct seems to have been the final straw for many people. In recent days, support for the Conservatives has dropped from 50 per cent to 44 per cent. Mr. Johnson’s approval rating has also fallen 20 points since the scandal broke last weekend, and he is now viewed more negatively than favourably by the public for the first time since the election.

The rising hostility also comes as the government is about to roll out a testing and tracing system that relies heavily on public compliance. Under the program, to be introduced Thursday, anyone who tests positive for the virus will be approached by tracers who will track down everyone that person has come in contact with. Those who have come in close contact with the infected person could be tested and may have to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they are not displaying symptoms. The government is also planning to impose local lockdowns if the virus flares up in particular regions.

The testing program “will be voluntary at first because we trust everyone to do the right thing, but we will make it mandatory if that’s what it takes," Health Minister Matt Hancock said Wednesday.

Simon Clarke, an associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said the system will be heavily reliant on compliance given that it’s voluntary and there is little enforcement. “This new initiative can only work if the government reinforces the message that the rules must apply to everyone and are not interpreted to suit individual circumstances,” Dr. Clarke said Wednesday. “Given recent revelations, they now face an uphill battle to show the public that we really are all in this together.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Johnson said public confidence will be critical for the testing and tracing system to work. And he acknowledged that the scandal has not helped. “It has been a very frustrating episode,” he told a parliamentary committee. “I think what we need to do really is to move on and to get on to how we are going to sort out the coronavirus.”

That drew a rebuke from Pete Wishart, an MP for the Scottish National Party. He told Mr. Johnson sarcastically that he had been “brave to sacrifice the credibility and popularity of the government just to stand by your man.”

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