Over the past 4 months, we have all made great sacrifices to help Britain get through the coronavirus pandemic. It is right to acknowledge and understand this. This started for me with my first constituent, and his family, stuck in Wuhan, China in January. I fully understand that lockdown has been very tough, with some constituents losing loved ones, falling ill themselves and facing significant difficulties on many different levels.
I myself, assisted by my small team, have helped many hundreds of constituents navigate this lockdown, as we all try and understand how the new rules apply, and give advice and support where it is available from local authorities and the government. During this time, our caseload has been very significant; we are focused on ensuring that people get the support they need, and businesses stay afloat. There is a massive amount of support available on my website – guyopperman.co.uk/Coronavirus.
There is no doubt that some constituents have been faced with difficult decisions and dilemmas. The core message may be easily understood, but this must be read in line with the statutory regulations, alongside the guidance which has evolved, and the explanations from the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Officer.
There has been much media, and other speculation, regarding the actions of Mr Cummings, his wife, and their four-year old child back in late March/early April. It is right to say I have received a significant level of correspondence as a result of the media coverage on Friday night and over the weekend. As always, views are mixed ranging from those who are very critical and upset at his actions, and those who are empathetic to what he did in the circumstances that applied to his child.
Unfortunately, the volume of emails I have received means that it is not possible to reply individually to some of the specific questions that people have asked. Instead, I have tried to set out my position and thinking in detail; I have yet to find anybody who thinks invasive door stepping by the media, and the aggressiveness of some, reflect well on our society. We should always stand for tolerance of each other’s views, regardless of political differences. I remain of the view that everybody who goes into public life does it for fundamentally good reasons.
I stress that I always try and take on board what constituents say, even where those views differ, and convey that strength to senior colleagues. Many want instant judgments and Twitter responses. However, rather than make an immediate comment on the situation based on press reports, I wanted to wait for Mr Cummings to explain what happened in his own words and write in more detail.
I have now had the chance to listen to the detailed account offered by Mr Cummings on Monday, with an hour of questions from the media, on all aspects of his actions. You can watch his full statement by clicking here.
This is not to understate the efforts and sacrifices that all of us have made to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe in this very difficult time. In my view, the key issue Mr Cummings and his wife clearly grappled with in this situation, is the assessment of child welfare. Should they have both been incapacitated as a result of coronavirus at the same time, their child would have been extremely vulnerable. The regulations on social distancing in place, at the time, made clear that you can leave your home provided you have a reasonable excuse.
The government provided a non-exhaustive list of reasonable excuses, and these include care for a vulnerable person, such as a child. In those circumstances, there is an exemption to the basic rule that is found in Paragraph 6 of the Coronavirus Statutory Regulations, which you can read by clicking here.
These regulations were reinforced by the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jenny Harries at the daily press briefing on 24th March - before Mr Cummings acted as he did. She advised the public that: ‘A small child clearly is a vulnerable individual… Clearly if you have adults who are unable to look after a small child, this is an exceptional circumstance.’
His detailed account sets out that he did everything to isolate himself and his family, both during the journey, and in the time spent on his parent’s farm. They drove to Durham in a private car, without stopping, and occupied a separate outbuilding on his parents’ farm with no face-to-face contact, with food left on their doorstep. This is not a derogation from government guidance at the time. This stated that, if you are living with children, ‘keep following this [stay at home] advice to the best of your ability; however, we are aware that not all these measures will be possible.’
Having listened to Mr Cummings’ press conference, he clearly feels that he acted reasonably in the circumstances that applied at the time as they grappled with their illness and does not intend to offer his resignation. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, however, I do not regard this as a resignation issue; I have never met or spoken to either Mr Cummings or his family, but it is clear they understand why people are upset and angry.
The Prime Minister has also met with him and accepted his explanation; he works – along with many other special advisers - for the Prime Minister. I accept this approach and support the Prime Minister’s decision. Nor am I going to pile in on other parliamentary or professional colleagues who have been criticised, whether they are Labour or SNP. I do not believe it assists in the middle of a recovery from an economic disaster and a pandemic, when the big issue is helping this country and my community I represent going forward. I accept that not everybody will agree with this conclusion, but it is my opinion.
My focus remains on dealing with the virus. I spent Monday and Tuesday both working on my ministerial brief to ensure the safeguarding of our pension system in these difficult times, and in discussions with local businesses, councillors, the local authority RE: care homes, assisting with school re-openings, helping individual constituents, and in discussions as to the use of local hospitals run by the Northumbria NHS Trust as we try to emerge from the first phase and move on to phase two.
I am certain that as the fight against this global pandemic goes on, we need to focus all our efforts on fighting this illness, and the economic consequences as we emerge from this pandemic. That is what I will be focusing on going forward. I am not going to be adding to this opinion. As always, my views are set out in a lot of detail on a whole host of issues on the policy issues on this website.
UPDATE: You may be interested to note that Durham Constabulary have made clear they are not taking any further action against Mr Cummings over his self-isolation, and that going to Durham did not breach the regulations. You can find the full statement from Durham Police by clicking here.