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Boris Johnson's aide cites 'exceptional circumstances' for his lockdown breaches

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's closest aide Dominic Cummings said he recognized the anger of the British people but tried to explain what he characterized as extreme circumstances that led to him driving 400 kilometres from London to northern England during the coronavirus lockdown.

Dominic Cummings says he hasn't offered to resign, as PM continues to support him

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's senior aide says 'exceptional circumstances' allowed him to break the lockdown rules he helped put together.  3:15

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's closest aide Dominic Cummings said he recognized the anger of the British people but tried to explain what he characterized as extreme circumstances that led to him driving 400 kilometres from London to northern England during the coronavirus lockdown.

While his tone wasn't defiant while reading a statement to the media in the Rose Garden of Johnson's 10 Downing Street office, Cummings did not offer an apology.

"I don't regret what I did," he said. "Reasonable people may well disagree."

Cummings, 48, said he had not offered to resign. But he could still face pressure to quit despite his statement, and his departure would be a big loss for Johnson.

The prime minister, however, appeared inclined to give his adviser the benefit of the doubt, as questions about Cummings overshadowed a news conference to announce a further easing of lockdown restrictions.

No reasonable child-care options

While Johnson said he regretted the "confusion and the anger and the pain that people feel," he did not deviate greatly from his comments on Sunday, when he said that Cummings had acted "responsibly and legally and with integrity."

"I can't give any unconditional backing to anybody, but I do not believe that anybody in No. 10 has done anything to undermine our messaging [to the public]," said Johnson.

Cummings said he drove from London to Durham with his wife and four-year-old child at the beginning of the final weekend in March because he had no reasonable child-care options in London if both he and his wife were seriously ill.

Dominic Cummings, senior aide to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, makes a statement on the grounds of 10 Downing Street on Monday, after days of outcry over allegations he breached coronavirus lockdown restrictions. (Jonathan Brady/The Associated Press)

Cummings said he thought the best thing to do was drive to an isolated cottage on his father's farm on March 27. His sister and two nieces capable of providing child care lived in another dwelling on his father's property, he added.

Both he and his wife developed coronavirus symptoms by this point, Cummings said, though they were not tested.

"The situation I was in was exceptional circumstances, and I think the way that I dealt with it was the least risk to everybody concerned if my wife and I had both been unable to look after our four-year-old," he said.

Cummings did fall ill while they were there, as did his son, who briefly went to hospital.

Asked whether he tried to find a child-care option in London before leaving, he said he did not think it would have been reasonable to ask friends to expose themselves to the virus.

Trip came as PM was diagnosed

At the time, the government's instruction to anyone showing symptoms was not to leave the house for 14 days.

Cummings, while allowing that he "should have made this statement earlier" to a story that dominated the British press all weekend, said he acted "responsibly and legally."

"The legal rules inevitably do not cover all circumstances," he said.

He did not inform Johnson of his trek, saying he was being mindful of the demands on the prime minister's time. As well, he said, Johnson had announced his own coronavirus diagnosis publicly on March 27.

"I didn't know about any of the arrangements in advance," Johnson confirmed later.

'Complete humility'

Johnson said he recalled "a brief conversation [in] which I think Mr. Cummings mentioned where he was," but the prime minister acknowledged he was ill and getting "sicker" at that time.

Johnson ended his own news conference by saying the government "will continue to learn and improve where we can, every step of the way, in a spirit of complete humility."

With a death toll around 43,000, Britain is the worst-hit country in Europe and the government was already under pressure over its handling of the pandemic.

Cummings said he understood there was great suffering in the country and that he knows "the British people hate the idea of unfairness."

Johnson speaks during a media briefing on coronavirus on Sunday. (Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street /The Associated Press)

Cummings said some of the anger has been influenced by incorrect descriptions of his actions. For one, he said, his actions weren't influenced by the fact his uncle had died of COVID-19 on April 5.

He stressed that his family was not in contact with strangers and that a previously reported trip on April 12 to Barnard Castle — about 30 kilometres from Durham — amounted to a test drive to ensure his eyesight, which he had described as having been "a bit weird' during that time, was fine to make the full trip back to London.

Cummings answered questions from the reporters for an hour, which included whether he had stopped for petrol or for his son to go to the toilet during the long drive. Whether or not Cummings' sometimes convoluted explanations win over critics may take time to become clear.

'What planet are they on?'

Reaction piled up over the weekend and was not kind as more details of Cummings's movements became known. 

"What planet are they on?" asked the Daily Mail, an influential conservative paper usually supportive of Johnson and his adviser.

Cummings leaves his north London home on Monday. (Aaron Chown/PA via The Associated Press)

Some 20 ruling Conservative Party lawmakers, 14 Church of England bishops and some scientists also expressed anger.

Conservative lawmakers reported being contacted by outraged constituents who had made sacrifices during the lockdown, including staying away from dying relatives.

"I got swamped with even more emails from people who don't have a political axe to grind and who say ... 'it looks as though it's one rule for them and one for us, why should we now abide by government guidance?'" said lawmaker Tim Loughton.

At least one Conservative MP on Monday, however, appeared satisfied with Cummings's explanation outside Downing Street.

The architect of the successful Brexit campaign in 2016, Cummings is a polarizing figure, accused by many who wanted to stay in the EU of using inflammatory tactics and playing fast and loose with the facts.

Ominously for him and for Johnson, many of the lawmakers and newspaper columnists calling for him to be sacked were Brexit supporters, not his usual critics.

As for the latest societal revisions, Johnson said Britain will reopen thousands of shops, department stores and shopping centres next month.

He told a news conference that from June 1, outdoor markets and car showrooms could be reopened as soon as they are able to meet the COVID-19 secure guidelines, and all other non-essential retail from June 15 if the government's tests and targets are met.

"There are careful but deliberate steps on the road to rebuilding our country," Johnson said.

With files from CBC News

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