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Downing Street: Cummings, communication & public confidence

Downing Street: Cummings, communication & public confidence

Confidence in the government’s handling of Covid fell dramatically after Dominic Cummings’s Durham trip came to light. Public faith was broken and a clear message started to muddy. How much responsibility for this failure of Downing Street’s communications strategy should be laid at the door of the prime minister’s now-former aide?

On 23 March, Boris Johnson gave a very simple instruction: “you must stay at home”. This was the start of the national lockdown. Its central purpose, Johnson explained, was to “stop the disease spreading between households”. Staying at home was going to save our lives. 

Four days later the prime minister’s most senior advisor decided not to stay at home after all.

What happened in Durham

27 March: Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, test positive for Covid. Cummings is seen “running away” from Downing Street. (By 27 March 24,015 people have tested positive for the virus and 2,236 have died.)

28 – 29 March: Cummings develops symptoms, and Downing Street confirms. 

31 March: Durham Constabulary statement: 

“On Tuesday, March 31, our officers were made aware of reports that an individual had travelled from London to Durham and was present at an address in the city.

“Officers made contact with the owners of that address who confirmed that the individual in question was present and was self-isolating in part of the house.

“In line with national policing guidance, officers explained to the family the guidelines around self-isolation and reiterated the appropriate advice around essential travel.”

28 March – 6 April: Cummings writes: “At the end of March and for the first two weeks of April I was ill, so we were both shut in together.” His wife, Mary Wakefield, writes in The Spectator: “I felt breathless, sometimes achy, but Dom couldn’t get out of bed. Day in, day out for 10 days he lay doggo with a high fever and spasms that made the muscles lump and twitch in his legs.”

5 April: Cummings is spotted by a witness in the grounds of his parents’ home near Durham with a child believed to be his son. The same evening Boris Johnson is admitted to St Thomas’ hospital after his own condition worsens. Wakefield writes later: “Just as Dom was beginning to feel better … Boris was heading in the other direction, into hospital.”

12 April: Barnard Castle: Wakefield does not mention that on 12 April – her birthday – she and Cummings made a trip to Barnard Castle, 30 miles from the Cummings’s family property and 253 miles from Number 10. Cummings later states the drive was to test his eyesight. 

14 April: Cummings is photographed in Downing Street, apparently recovered. The PM’s spokesman says: “He certainly had coronavirus symptoms and that is why he self isolated.” 

5 May: Professor Neil Ferguson resigns as a scientific advisor to the government after twice being visited by his girlfriend and breaking lockdown guidance. 

22 May: Articles appear in the Mirror and the Guardian on Cummings’ lockdown breach. The Mirror’s headline reads: “Dominic Cummings investigated by police after breaking coronavirus lockdown rules”

23 May: Downing Street releases a statement saying that owing to his wife being infected “and the high likelihood that he would himself become unwell, it was essential for Dominic Cummings to ensure his young child could be properly cared for”.

The statement adds: “At no stage was he or his family spoken to by the police about this matter, as is being reported.”

“His actions were in line with coronavirus guidelines. Mr Cummings believes he behaved reasonably and legally.”

When a reporter outside Cummings’ London home suggests the trip to Durham does not look good, Cummings replies: “Who cares about good looks? It’s a question of doing the right thing. It’s not about what you guys think.”

May 28: Durham Constabulary releases a statement saying it does not consider Cummings committed an offence by “locating himself at his father’s premises”, but that the trip to Barnard Castle “might have been a minor breach of the Regulations that would have warranted police intervention”. The statement said the breach was seen as minor because there was no apparent breach of social distancing.

Witness statements

Witnesses who saw Cummings in Durham and Barnard Castle and complained about the appearance of double standards may have reflected the public mood, although many declined to be quoted by name. 

“I was really annoyed. I thought it’s OK for you to drive all the way up to Durham and escape from London. I sympathise with him wanting to do that, but other people are not allowed to do that. It’s one rule for Dominic Cummings and one rule for the rest of us.”

Anonymous Witness, Guardian, 22 May 

“We were shocked and surprised to see him because the last time we did was earlier in the week in Downing Street…We thought ‘He’s not supposed to be here during the lockdown’. We thought ‘What double standards, one rule for him as a senior adviser to the Prime Minister and another for the rest of us’”

Anonymous Witness, The Mirror, 23 May

The fall out 

Michael Gove tweeted that “caring for your wife and child is not a crime”, and other senior Conservatives echoed his sentiments. But backbenchers weren’t happy. 

45 Tory MPs said Cummings should resign or be sacked.

55 Tory MPs were critical of Cummings but stopped short of calling for him to go.

Outside the party, Cummings found even fewer supporters:

“If Dominic Cummings has broken the lockdown guidelines he will have to resign. It’s as simple as that.”

Ed Davey, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

“Dominic Cummings’ position is completely untenable – he must resign or be sacked.”

Ian Blackford, the Scottish National party’s Westminster leader

“Keir Starmer has said that if he was prime minister, he would have sacked Dominic Cummings. Boris Johnson should follow that advice. If he does not act then he will send a clear message that there is one rule for his closest adviser and another for the British people.”

Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow home secretary

What did the public think? 

Government messaging 

Official guidance during the initial spring lockdown stated:

“You should not be visiting family members who do not live in your home”

“The only exception is if they need help, such as having shopping or medication dropped off.”

Rule breakers 

Cummings was not the only public figure who broke the rules, but others resigned when found out. 

  • Prof Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist whose modelling prompted the lockdown, quit as a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) for flouting physical distancing rules when visited by his girlfriend.
  • Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s chief medical officer, resigned for breaking the lockdown rules by twice visiting her second home.

The Cummings effect

An analysis of over 40,000 individuals by UCL’s COVID-19 Social Study found that the Barnard Castle affair undermined confidence in the government’s ability to handle the pandemic.

  • Starting on May 22 there was a clear decrease in confidence in England. Analyses of data from Google Trends showed that public searches for Dominic Cummings’ name peaked three days later when he gave a televised statement. This peak coincided with the steepest decline in confidence in government. 
  • There had already been a gradual decrease in public adherence to Covid guidelines before the publicity about Cummings’ actions on May 22, but the difference in this decline between England and the devolved nations grew over the next three weeks. 

And he’s gone…

On 13 November, Cummings announced his resignation. He left Downing Street the next day.

One witnesses who reported seeing him in Durham, Rosalind Evans, a retired council worker, told the Guardian:

 “He should have resigned in May when this came out. He should have taken responsibility and apologised for what he did then, I don’t see any of that happening now.”

Further reading