In an age of increasingly polarised politics, rarely has one issue united the nation so conclusively. From Julia Hartley-Brewer and Piers Morgan to the Daily Mail and the Mirror, party lines were temporarily ignored to deliver the same message this weekend: Dominic Cummings must go.
The special advisor’s crime? Driving more than 250 miles to Durham with his wife and child during lockdown because the former was showing symptoms of Covid-19 and they believed Cummings’ family’s farm would be a better base should they all fall ill. (Then driving to Barnard Castle while there to “see if he could drive safely”. Then returning to London.) But perhaps the bigger crime is, as some people have put it, his alleged “gaslighting” of an entire country.
In a press conference delivered in the Rose Garden at no. 10 Downing Street on Bank Holiday Monday, Cummings claimed he had not broken lockdown rules in any of his actions, despite the fact that everyone else had been under the impression that “Stay home, save lives” meant precisely that – no travelling to a second residence, particularly if you were experiencing any coronavirus symptoms.
Whatever allowances might be made given the difficulty of parenting in a pandemic, it was a bitter blow to the thousands of families who have stuck to the letter of the law during this time, many at huge personal cost, because they thought it was the right thing to do. According to the latest YouGov poll, released on Tuesday, 71 per cent of the British public think Johnson’s top aide disregarded government regulations; 59 per cent believe he should quit.
“My husband and I had Covid in March,” tweeted Ciar Richardson. “We have three young children, two are disabled. We had no support at all. Our relatives are 65 miles away, but we followed the guidance to the letter. To hear a couple with one child excused of travelling 250+ miles to see family is utterly enraging.”
It’s one of countless tales of sacrifice shared since the news broke and it became clear that Cummings didn’t intend to admit to, at the very least, bending the rules. The anger on social media is palpable.
“We wouldn’t have dreamed of putting anyone else at risk,” psychotherapist Kathryn de Prudhoe tells The Independent. Like the Cummings family, the de Prudhoes had to cope under similarly “extraordinary” circumstances. Kathryn and her husband Nic, a recruitment consultant, fell ill fairly early on, in the first week of lockdown. Her symptoms were more severe than his – unable to get out of bed, Kathryn spent days asleep while Nic had to juggle caring for their five and eight-year-old while also taking care of her.
“At the time, we just accepted that this was what we had to do,” she says. “We didn’t question it at all.” For the two weeks that Kathryn was seriously unwell, her parents initially dropped off food parcels to help out. Then they both came down with Covid-19 too; and that’s when things got much, much harder. Kathryn’s dad, an otherwise fit and healthy 60-year-old, became seriously ill and was taken to hospital and put on a ventilator. Unable to visit him under the guidelines, her mother continued to self-isolate, all the while knowing she might never see her husband again. Her fears proved correct.
“It was like torture. The day that dad died, I had taken some things round for my mum that afternoon. While I was there on the doorstep, the phone rang and she went inside to take the call. I got the gist of it – and I just had to wait outside, knowing what that call was.”
Kathryn’s mother had been told that the hospital was going to withdraw life support. The pair then had to sit three metres apart on camping chairs outside, waiting for the second call to let them know he’d passed away. She describes the experience as “heartbreaking”.
“Even after that, we carried on observing social distancing,” she adds. “My mum was alone for two weeks while we were grieving – because we knew the risks of the virus. To see government advisors having a completely different attitude and interpreting the rules in a way that suits them is like a kick in the teeth.”
The suggestion, too, that Dominic Cummings’ actions were those of a good father, is particularly galling: “It’s so insulting. Am I a bad daughter because I didn’t go to the hospital when my father died? Am I a bad daughter because I didn’t bring my grieving mum to stay with us? Am I a bad parent because I didn’t ship my children off elsewhere when we got ill? Yesterday I was a law-abiding citizen, today I’m a heartless bad parent.”
Kathryn knows her family still did the right thing, but believes Boris Johnson and senior ministers who have come out in support of Cummings no longer have any credibility. “They have no authority now; how can they ask anybody else to stick to the rules?” she says.
Emily, a PR executive based in Bedfordshire, is similarly disappointed by Cummings’ “despicable” behaviour. A mother of two, whose children are two and nine, Emily fell severely ill with coronavirus symptoms on 16 March. “My symptoms were manageable for a week, but on day seven I took a turn for the worse and I got really ill. I had a bad few days where I struggled to breathe normally and had to sleep constantly, along with a high fever. I really thought I might end up in hospital.”
Her symptoms gradually improved, but she didn’t make a full recovery until three weeks later. During that time, her husband, who was asymptomatic, had to struggle on with work and childcare. “Like the Cummings family, we absolutely thought he would fall ill too, knowing how contagious it was” says Emily. “We were trying to plan how we would cope. But it didn’t even cross my mind to break the rules and ask my mum to help out. It would feel too risky, and not the right thing to do as a good citizen.”
Like Kathryn, Emily has also experienced grief at a distance, losing her grandfather to Covid-19 in April. For her, the prime minister’s assertions that Cummings was simply following his “instincts” as a good father have been hardest to bear. “My ‘instinct’ at my grandfather’s funeral was to hug my family members – but we didn’t. It broke every instinct we had, not to embrace. Lockdown is hard because we’re going against our instincts – that’s why it’s so extraordinary. If we’re being told to go with our instincts, then we’ve all being doing it wrong.”
She adds: “I try not to get angry, because it’s not a helpful emotion, but I just think [Cummings is] so hypocritical; the contempt he’s shown for us as a nation is despicable. I’m not surprised, but really disappointed, to see this behaviour from people at the top who are supposedly leading us though this difficult time.”
These stories are just a drop in the ocean when scrolling through social media – there is so much anguish expressed by those who have had to cope with much, much more than the chief advisor. Single parents, those with disabled children in specialist facilities who they haven’t seen for months, people struggling with financial difficulties and job losses on top of everything else.
But perhaps the most tragic part is watching parents and family members questioning themselves in light of the government’s insistence that Dominic Cummings did no wrong. Should they have gone to the hospital to bid a loved one farewell? Should they have pulled their siblings into their arms instead of socially distancing at a family funeral? Should they have ignored every public health message and visited their nearest and dearest in care homes?
These people clearly all did the right thing, according to the government’s own public health guidance. And yet it is they, not Dominic Cummings, who seem full of regret right now.
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