LONDON, (AFP):- UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday some English schools and shops would reopen from next week as he tried to end a scandal over what police said appeared to be a “minor” lockdown breach by his closest adviser.
Johnson’s attempts to navigate Britain through a health disaster that has officially claimed 37,837 lives — second only to the United States — and devastated the economy are being complicated by the cross-country travels of his top aide Dominic Cummings.
The Brexit campaign mastermind has become Johnson’s most trusted adviser and one of the chief architects of Britain’s coronavirus response plan.
But police ruled Thursday that “there might have been a minor breach of the regulations” when he made a 60-mile (100-kilometre) round-trip in April to a picturesque castle in northern England from a family home where he had been self-isolating with his wife and four-year-old son.
Durham Constabulary said it had closed the case because other Britons who committed similar offences were not being prosecuted retroactively.
Cummings had justified the journey by claiming he had needed to test his eyesight after experiencing COVID-19 symptoms in late March and subsequently developing blurry vision.
But the controversial aide has also sparked fury for relocating his family from London to his parents’ house about 260 miles away during the lockdown’s strictest phase.
He has insisted the decision was within the government’s guidelines because he needed to ensure he had childcare.
Johnson said the police statement vindicated his decision to stand by Cummings during what has turned into arguably the biggest political scandal of his year in office.
“They are not taking any action and I intend to draw a line under it,” Johnson told reporters.
– ‘Joyful moment’ –
The British leader tried to focus the nation’s attention instead on his decision to reopen schools for younger children on Monday and for older students on June 15.
People will be able to meet in groups of up to six people in England — and eight people in Scotland — from next week.
Johnson said that would mark the “long-awaited and joyful moment” when people will be able to see “both parents at once, or both grandparents at once” in cases where families live apart.
All shops still solvent after being forced to lock up for 12 weeks can open their doors on June 15.
But the British leader insisted everyone must continue observing social distancing measures and exercise common sense — a policy that government critics argue is being gravely undermined by the premier’s rule-breaking aide.
Johnson’s most senior adviser — dubbed by some media as Britain’s second-most powerful man — staged an unusual press conference Monday in which he made no apologies and blamed the media for misrepresenting his case.
But the police said they had “examined the circumstances surrounding the journey to Barnard Castle… and have concluded that there might have been a minor breach of the regulations that would have warranted police intervention”.
– ‘Desperate’ –
The police findings could still pose a political problem for Johnson later down the line.
More than 40 members of his Conservative party have called on Johnson to part with Cummings and several top Brexit-supporting newspapers have mounted campaigns to force out the adviser they once adored.
Some opposition lawmakers seized on the police report to redouble their calls for Cummings to either be fired or to quit.
Labour leader Keir Starmer — until Thursday relatively reserved in his statements — said Johnson has “shown himself to be weak”.
“I mean, he’s so desperate for this adviser he’ll cling on to him through thick and thin,” Starmer told the BBC.
The left-wing Mirror newspaper separately accused Johnson of acting in a “Putin-esque” manner by jumping in before government scientists could answer questions about Cummings during Thursday’s briefing.
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