World

British government loses a minister over top aide's trips during lockdown

A junior British government minister quit on Tuesday over Prime Minister Boris Johnson's failure to fire his top aide for allegedly breaching coronavirus lockdown rules.

Minister for Scotland Douglas Ross believes it is wrong that Dominic Cummings has not stepped down

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson toasts alongside Douglas Ross, right, in Moray, Scotland, in a 2019 photo. Ross announced his resignation Tuesday over Johnson’s failure to fire his top aide Dominic Cummings for allegedly breaching COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown rules. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via The Associated Press)

A junior British government minister quit on Tuesday over Prime Minister Boris Johnson's failure to fire his top aide for allegedly breaching coronavirus lockdown rules.

Johnson has stood by Dominic Cummings over his decision to drive 400 kilometres from London to his parents' house in Durham at the end of March, despite a national order for people to remain at home. Cummings says he travelled so that extended family could care for his four-year-old son if he and his wife, who both had suspected coronavirus infections, fell ill.

But many Britons say Cummings made a mockery of the sacrifices of people who followed the rules to stop the spread of the disease, even when it meant staying away from loved ones.

Scotland Minister Douglas Ross said in a resignation letter that "the vast majority of people" didn't agree with Cummings.

"I have constituents who didn't get to say goodbye to loved ones; families who could not mourn together; people who didn't visit sick relatives because they followed the guidance of the government," he wrote. "I cannot in good faith tell them they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right."

Senior police officers said Cummings's interpretation of the rules made it harder to enforce the lockdown, and scientists said it could undermine messaging about the importance of physical distancing.

"It threatens to undermine that sense of community if a figure as prominent as Dominic Cummings and if the prime minister himself starts undermining that 'We' message and starts talking about 'I,'' said Stephen Reicher, a behavioural psychologist who helps advise the government.

Johnson, Gove supportive

Johnson has stood staunchly by his adviser, saying Cummings "followed the instincts of every father and every parent."

On Tuesday, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove insisted that Cummings "didn't break the law. He didn't break the rules. He sought to protect his family."

WATCH l Cummings explains 'exceptional' circumstances, has no regrets:

Dominic Cummings, a top adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, defended breaking isolation orders imposed on the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. 2:04

But Cummings's road trip has drawn criticism from scientists, doctors, bishops and Britons across the country. Cummings made a side trip to a well-known tourist stop, which he characterized as a test drive to make sure he was healthy enough to head all the way back to London.

Mark Harper, Conservative MP for Forest of Dean, said in a statement on Tuesday that "there is no credible justification" for that trip to Barnard Castle, which is about 30 kilometres from Durham. As with Ross, Harper said he believed Cummings should have offered to resign.

Ominously for Johnson, it also troubles a growing number of Conservative lawmakers.

"We cannot throw away valuable public and political good will any longer," tweeted Conservative lawmaker William Wragg. "It's humiliating and degrading to their office to see ministers put out agreed lines in defence of an adviser. This is a time of national emergency and our focus must be unrelenting. We owe it to the nation."

With files from CBC News

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