Response to Dominic Cummings story

I totally understand the frustration people feel – in our area there has been a high level of compliance with lockdown which has helped control the virus. Like everyone else I have been unable to see my parents, while they haven’t been able to see their grandchildren. During the last couple of months a number of friends have lost loved ones from other causes, and of course social distancing has made it even harder to bear.

My team have been working flat out to help people locally with all kinds of problems due to the virus and there are lots of other issues that we need to focus on and get right: like how we reopen schools and local shops safely; and how we deal with the job losses and hardship this virus has brought, and get the economy back on its feet.

Regarding Mr Cummings, the facts seem to still be emerging, so it may be too soon to come to a definitive judgement. 

On the positive side, as far as I can see he isolated himself and his family in a separate house on a remote farm. Apart from an unavoidable trip to A&E for a seriously ill child, they didn’t come into contact with anyone.

On the other hand, I agree that as someone setting the rules it would have been far, far better if he could have self-isolated in his primary residence in London.  Against that, he says he had no-one to call on to look after their four year old locally and feared both parents would be completely out of action.

I agree that many aspects of this have not been handled well – indeed Mr Cummings seemed to acknowledge as much in his statement to the media which I attach below. On this and other things, there are lessons to learn.

I have passed on the concerns of everyone who has contacted me about this matter to government so they will be aware of the strength of feeling on this issue.

For links to local help or to advice, please see

https://www.neilobrien.org.uk/coronavirus

Best, Neil   

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Dominic Cummings full statement below –

“Around midnight on Thursday, the twenty sixth of March, I spoke to the prime minister. He told me that he tested positive for Covid. We discussed the national emergency arrangements for No.10, given his isolation and what I would do in No. 10 the next day. The next morning, I went to work as usual. I was in a succession of meetings about this emergency.

I suddenly got a call from my wife who was at home looking after our four year old child. She told me she suddenly felt badly ill. She'd vomited and felt like she might pass out. And there'll be nobody to look after our child. None of our usual childcare options were available. They were alone in the house. After very briefly telling some officials in No.10 what had happened, I immediately left the building, ran to a car and drove home. This was reported by the media at the time who saw me run out of No. 10. After a couple of hours, my wife felt a bit better. There were many critical things at work and she urged me to return in the afternoon and I did. That evening, I returned home and discussed the situation with my wife.

She was ill. She might have Covid, though she did not have a cough or a fever. At this point, most of those who I work with most closely, including the prime minister himself and others who sit within 15 feet of me every day, either had had symptoms and had returned to work or were absent with symptoms. I thought there was a distinct probability that I had already caught the disease. I had a few conflicting thoughts in my mind. First, I was worried that if my wife and I were both seriously ill, possibly hospitalised, there was nobody in London that we could reasonably ask to look after our child and exposed themselves to Covid. My wife had felt on the edge of not being able to look after him safely a few hours earlier. I was thinking, what if the same or worse happens to me? There's nobody here that I can reasonably ask to help. The regulations make clear, I believe the risks to the health of a small child were an exceptional situation, and I had a way of dealing with this that minimised risk to others.

Second, I thought that if I did not develop symptoms, then I might be able to return to work to help deal with the crisis. There were ongoing discussions about testing government staff in order to keep people like me working rather than isolating. At this point, on the Friday, advisers such as myself had not been included in the list of who were tested. But it was possible that this might change the following week. Therefore, I thought that after testing negative, I could continue working.

In fact, this did not change and special advisers were not tested and I have never been tested. Third, there had been numerous false stories in the media about my actions and statements regarding Covid. In particular, there were stories suggesting that I had opposed lockdown and even then I did not care about many deaths. For years, I have warned of the dangers of pandemics. Last year I wrote about the possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning. The truth is, that I had argued for lockdown. I did not oppose it. But these stories had created a very bad atmosphere around my home. I was subject to threats of violence. People came to my house shouting threats. There were posts on social media, encouraging attacks. There were many media reports on TV showing pictures of my house. I was also worried that given the severity of this emergency, this situation would get worse. And I was worried about the possibility of leaving my wife and child at home all day and off into the night while I worked in No.10. I thought the best thing to do in all the circumstances was to drive to an isolated cottage on my father's farm. At this farm, my parents live in one house. My sister and her two children live in another house, and there was a separate cottage roughly 50 metres away from either of them. My tentative conclusion on the Friday evening was this: if we are both unable to look after our child, then my sister or nieces can look after him. My nieces are 17 and 20. They are old enough to look after him, but also young enough to be in the safest category. And they had extremely kindly volunteered to do so if needed.

But, I thought, if I do not develop symptoms and there is a testing regime in place at work, I could return to work if I tested negative. In that situation, I could leave my wife and child behind in a safe place, safe in the form of support from family for shopping in emergencies, safe in the sense of being away from home which had become a target and also safe for everybody else because they were completely isolated on a farm and could not infect anybody. Contrary to some media reports, there are no neighbours in the normal sense of the word. The nearest other homes are roughly half a mile away. So in this scenario, I thought that they could stay there for a few weeks. I could go back to work, help colleagues and everybody, including the general public, would be safe.

I did not ask the prime minister about this decision. He was ill himself and he had huge problems to deal with. Everyday, I have to exercise my judgment about things like this and decide what to discuss with him. I thought I would speak to him when the situation clarified over coming days, including whether I had symptoms and whether there were tests available. Arguably, this was a mistake, and I understand that some will say that I should've spoken to the prime minister before deciding what to do. So I drove the three of us up to Durham last night, arriving roughly at midnight. I did not stop on the way. When I worked the next morning, Saturday the twenty eighth of March, I was in pain and clearly had Covid symptoms, including a bad headache and a serious fever.

Clearly, I could not return to work any time soon. For a day or two, we were both ill. I was in bed. My wife was ill, but not ill enough that she needed emergency help. I got worse. She got better. During the night of Thursday, the 2nd of April, my child woke up. He threw up and had a bad fever. He was very distressed. We took medical advice which was to call 999. An ambulance was sent, they assessed my child and said he must go to hospital. I could barely stand up. My wife went with him in the ambulance. I stayed at home. He stayed the night in the hospital. In the morning, my wife called to say that he had recovered, seemed back to normal. Doctors had tested him for Covid and said that they should return home. There were no taxis. I drove to the hospital, picked them up, then returned home. I did not leave the car or have any contact with anybody at any point on this short trip. The hospital's, I don't know what, roughly five miles or something away two miles, three miles four miles, something like that. A few days later, the hospital said that he tested negative. After I started to recover, one day in the second week, I tried to walk outside the house. At one point the three of us walked into woods owned by my father, next to the cottage that I was staying in. Some people saw us in these woods from a distance, but we had no interaction with them. We had not left the property. We were on private land. By Saturday, the 11th of April, I was still feeling weak and exhausted. But other than that, I had no Covid symptoms. I thought that I'd be able to return to work the following week, possibly part time.

It was obvious that the situation was extremely serious. The Prime Minister had been gravely ill. Colleagues were dealing with huge problems and many were ill or isolating. I felt like I ought to return to work if possible, given I was now recovering in order to relieve the intense strain at No. 10. That Saturday, I sought expert medical advice. I explained our family's symptoms and all the timings, and I asked if it was safe to return to work on Monday, Tuesday, seek child care and so on. I was told that it was safe and I could return to work and seek childcare.

On Sunday 12 April, 15 days after I had first displayed symptoms, I decided to return to work. My wife was very worried, particularly given my eyesight seemed to have been affected by the disease. She didn't want to risk a nearly 300-mile drive with our child, given how ill I had been. We agreed that we should go for a short drive to see if I could drive safely. We drove for roughly half an hour and ended up on the outskirts of Barnard Castle town. We did not visit the castle. We did not walk around the town. We parked by a river. My wife and I discussed the situation. We agreed that I could drive safely, we should turn around, go home. I felt a bit sick. We walked about 10 to 15 metres from the car to the river bank nearby. We sat there for about 15 minutes. We had no interactions with anybody. I felt better. We returned the car. An elderly gentleman walking nearby appeared to recognise me. My wife wished him Happy Easter from a distance, but we had no other interaction.

We headed home. On the way home, our child needed the toilet. He was in the back seat of the car. We pulled over to the side of the road, my wife and child jumped out into the woods by the side of the road. They were briefly outside. I briefly joined them. They played for a little bit and then I got out of the car, went outside. We were briefly in the woods. We saw some people at a distance. But at no point did we break any social distancing rules. We then got back in the car and went home.

We agreed that if I continued to improve then the next day, we should return to London and I would go back to work. We returned to London on the evening of Monday 13 April, Easter Monday. I went back to work in No. 10 the next morning. At no point between arriving and leaving Durham did any of the three of us enter my parents' house or my sister's house. Our only exchanges were shouted conversations at a distance. My sister shopped for us and left everything outside.

In the last few days, there have been many media reports that I returned to Durham after 13 April. All these stories are false. There is a particular report that I returned there on 19 April. Photos and data on my phone prove this to be false. And local CCTV, if it exists, would also prove that I'm telling the truth that I was in London on that day. I was not in Durham.

During this two-week period, my mother's brother died with Covid. There are media reports that this had some influence on my behaviour. These reports false. This private matter did not affect my movements. None of us saw him. None of us attended his funeral. In this very complex situation, I tried to exercise my judgment the best I could.

I believe that in all circumstances I behaved reasonably and legally, balancing the safety of my family and the extreme situation in No.10 and the public interest in effective government to which I could contribute.

I was involved in decisions affecting millions of people, and I thought that I should try to help as much as I could do. I can understand that some people will argue that I should have stayed at my home in London throughout.

I understand these views. I know the intense hardship and sacrifice that the entire country has had to go through. However, I respectfully disagree. The legal rules inevitably do not cover all circumstances, including those that I found myself in. I thought and I think today that the rules, including those regarding small children in extreme circumstances, allowed me to exercise my judgment about the situation I found myself in, including the way that my London home had become a target -- and all the complexity of the situation.

I accept, of course, that there is room for reasonable disagreement about this. I could also understand some people think I should not have driven at all anywhere.

But I had taken medical expert medical advice. It was 15 days after symptoms. I'd been told that I could return to work and employ childcare. I think it was reasonable and sensible to make a short journey before embarking on a five-hour drive to see whether I was in a fit state to do this. The alternative was to stay in Durham rather than going back to work and contributing to the government's efforts. I believe I made the right judgment, though I can understand that others may disagree with that.

I've explained all of the above to the Prime Minister. At some point during the first week where we were both sick and in bed, I mentioned to him what I had done. Unsurprisingly, given the condition we were in, neither of us remember the conversation in any detail. I did not make my movements public at the time because my London home was already a target. I did not believe that I was obliged to make my parents' and my sister's home a target for harassment as well. I understand that millions of people have seen media coverage of this issue. I know that millions have endured awful hardship, including personal tragedies, over the past few months, and people are suffering every day. And I know the British people hate the idea of unfairness. I wanted to explain what I thought, what I did and why, over this period, because I think that people like me who helped to make the rules should be accountable for their actions.”