Boris Johnson’s most senior aide is facing fresh allegations he flouted lockdown rules by taking a sightseeing trip on Easter Sunday.
The prime minister is facing mounting calls to sack Dominic Cummings amid claims he made several trips to see his family in County Durham, while the country was being told to stay at home.
Ministers vociferously defended Mr Cummings after it emerged he had made the 260-mile journey, insisting he had obeyed the rules by staying in one place while there.
However, an eyewitness told The Observer and the Sunday Mirror he had seen Mr Cummings on 12 April, 30 miles from Durham in Barnard Castle.
Another eyewitness said they saw the prime minister’s most trusted aide in Durham on 19 April, days after he had been photographed returning to Downing Street.
Earlier, Downing Street had described the first trip as essential, saying Mr Cummings needed his family’s help to care for his young son because his wife was sick with coronavirus and he feared he was next.
Cabinet ministers lined up to defend Mr Cummings, saying he had put his family first and accused critics of trying to politicise the issue.
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, used the daily Downing Street press conference to suggest that Mr Cummings had not broken lockdown rules because he had stayed put upon arrival in Durham.
But Robin Lees, 70, a retired chemistry teacher, told the papers he had seen Mr Cummings in Barnard Castle on Easter Sunday.
Mr Lees compared him to Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s former chief medical officer, who stood down after visiting her second home twice during lockdown.
Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP have written to Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, calling for an inquiry into Mr Cummings’s decision to travel from London to Durham.
They want the probe to include when the prime minister was made aware Mr Cummings had left the capital.
Senior Tories also expressed concern that Mr Cummings's behaviour could encourage others to flout the rules, jeopardising the government’s plans to gradually lift the lockdown.
The Independent can reveal that senior MPs are set to question Mr Johnson over Mr Cummings later this week, as pressure grows on the prime minister to explain what he knew about the trip under lockdown.
Parliament is in recess until June, meaning Mr Johnson will not have to face MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions.
But members of the Commons Liaison Committee, which is made up of the chairs of other select committees, said they expected Mr Johnson to be questioned about Mr Cummings when he makes his first appearance before them later this week.
Pete Wishart, an SNP MP who sits on the committee and is a member of the "quad" which organises its business, said: “If nothing has changed and Dominic Cummings is still in post by Wednesday, it would be very surprising if this was an issue that was not raised.”
Another member of the committee said: “I’m sure one of my colleagues will crowbar the Cummings question in.”
In a statement defending Mr Cummings, Downing Street said his trip had been essential to ensure his young son was properly cared for. After an offer of help from his sister and nieces, he travelled to a house “near to but separate from his extended family”.
A spokesperson for No 10, said: "Yesterday [Friday] the Mirror and Guardian wrote inaccurate stories about Mr Cummings. Today [Saturday] they are writing more inaccurate stories including claims that Mr Cummings returned to Durham after returning to work in Downing Street on 14 April. We will not waste our time answering a stream of false allegations about Mr Cummings from campaigning newspapers."
There was confusion about the involvement of police, however. No 10 also said that at no stage was Mr Cummings or his family spoken to by the police.
On Saturday night Durham Police took the unusual step of confirming they had spoken to Mr Cummings’s father.
Steve White, the police and crime commissioner for Durham Police, a former head of the Police Federation in England and Wales, said it was "most unwise" for Mr Cummings to have travelled when "known to be infected".
The SNP accused No 10 of a "cover up" after reports some in Downing Street knew Mr Cummings had made the 260-mile journey during lockdown.
Former Tory cabinet minister David Lidington, Theresa May’s de facto deputy prime minister, told Newsnight: "There's clearly serious questions that No 10 are going to have to address, not least because the readiness of members of the public to follow government guidance more generally is going to be affected by this sort of story."
Professor Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist whose modelling prompted the lockdown, quit as a government adviser for flouting the rules when he was visited at this home by his lover.
At the time Mr Hancock, the health secretary, said he was "speechless" and that he backed any police action against Mr Ferguson.
Sir Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, called for Mr Cummings to quit over the allegations, while a spokesperson for Labour said: "The British people do not expect there to be one rule for them and another rule for Dominic Cummings."
Asked by reporters on Saturday if he had considered his position, Mr Cummings said "obviously not".