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UK PM's top aide Cummings defies calls to resign

Dominic Cummings told reporters that he acted 'reasonably and legally' when he drove across the country with his wife while she was suffering from the virus, despite official advice to stay at home.

Number 10 special advisor Dominic Cummings speaks at a press conference in the Rose Garden at 10 Downing Street in central London on 25 May 2020, following allegations he and his family travelled from London to Durham, while the nation was under full-lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. Picture: AFP

LONDON - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's top aide Dominic Cummings defied calls to resign on Monday over allegations that he broke coronavirus rules and undermined the government's response to the health crisis.

Cummings told reporters that he acted "reasonably and legally" when he drove across the country with his wife while she was suffering from the virus, despite official advice to stay at home.

"I have not offered to resign. No, I did not consider it," a visibly nervous Cummings said in his first press conference on the job.

"In this very complex situation, I tried to exercise my judgement the best I could. I believe that in all circumstances I behaved reasonably and legally."

Cummings did not apologise for his behaviour but did express regret for not asking Johnson - himself already hospitalised for COVID-19 - for permission to travel during the most restrictive phase of the lockdown.

"Arguably, this was a mistake and I understand that some will say that I should have spoken to the PM before deciding what to do," Cummings said.

FLOUTING RULES

The scandal raging around his decision to drive to leave his baby son at his parents' house while he and his wife were sick threatens to undermine Johnson in the heat of a health emergency that has claimed nearly 37,000 lives.

It is also arguably the biggest political scandal of Johnson's one-year rule.

Cummings was already a lightning rod for many Britons over his role in orchestrating the 2016 Brexit campaign that eventually saw Britain pull out of the European Union after nearly 50 years on 31 January.

But he is also a trusted adviser who first helped Johnson become prime minister and then choreographed Britain's delayed exit from the European bloc.

Politicians of all stripes have been joined by scientific advisers and even some members of the clergy in condemning Cummings for flouting the rules.

"If you give the impression there's one rule for them and one rule for us, you fatally undermine that sense of 'we're all in this together'," scientific adviser Stephen Reicher told ITV.

'NOT A GREAT SIGN'

Johnson told the nation on Sunday that Cummings was following his paternal instincts by dropping off his baby son at his grandparents' house while he and his wife were sick.

But the ConservativeHome website published a rolling list of members of Johnson's Conservative party who have publicly called for Cummings to be dismissed.

It had 20 names on Monday - still too few to challenge Johnson's 80-seat majority in parliament but growing by the day.

The Politico website noted that the list's publication "in itself is not a great sign for the prime minister".

Even newspapers that traditionally back Tory governments sounded a hostile note.

The Daily Mail website said the UK lockdown "was dead in the water" because Cummings was flouting its rules.

'MORAL QUESTION'

Cummings is an enigmatic figure with an unconventional dress style and direct approach that has endeared him to a segment of Britons who have developed a particular distaste for the ruling elite.

His role in masterminding the Brexit campaign was made into a TV film that further fed the legend of his political prowess.

But the sight of Cummings being heckled by his neighbours outside his home on Sunday and fighting through a crowd of reporters on his way to his car on Monday morning - "out of the way," he shouted several times - could drain Johnson's credibility at a pivotal point.

Britain is just starting to emerge from its coronavirus lockdown and the government wants everyone to keep observing social distancing rules in the coming months.

Leeds bishop Nick Baines accused Johnson of treating Britons "as mugs".

"The moral question is not for Cummings - it is for the PM and ministers/MPs who find this behaviour acceptable," the bishop tweeted.

Johnson was due to meet reporters on Monday after chairing a virtual cabinet meeting focused on a gradual lockdown easing

Politico said the "judgement inside Downing Street is that all of the above is just noise".