People are calling for Dominic Cummings to be sacked after reports that he and his wife and 4 year old child traveled by car from London to Durham, whilst he had symptoms of Covid-19. Both Cummings himself and a Downing Street spokesman have since defended the trip. According to the BBC report, the statement from Downing Street reads:
“Owing to his wife being infected with suspected coronavirus and the high likelihood that he would himself become unwell, it was essential for Dominic Cummings to ensure his young child could be properly cared for.
“His sister and nieces had volunteered to help so he went to a house near to, but separate from, his extended family in case their help was needed. His sister shopped for the family and left everything outside.
“At no stage was he or his family spoken to by the police about this matter, as is being reported.
“His actions were in line with coronavirus guidelines.”
Cummings has also claimed his actions were reasonable and legal. So, do the guidelines allow for this?
Let’s consider a case that some are making that they do. This web page of government guidance tells people to stay at home and self isolate if symptomatic, but it appears to have a get out clause:
If you are living with children
Keep following this advice to the best of your ability, however, we are aware that not all these measures will be possible.
Additionally Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy CMO for England, in this clip from today’s press briefing on the coronavirus, when asked about this situation, does say that if the parents of a child are unable to care for that child and can’t get support locally then this would count as an exceptional circumstance. Defenders of Cummings are suggesting thus that the “exceptional circumstance” applies and justifies Cummings decision to drive his wife and child to Durham where extended family could then support them.
An additional piece of evidence being cited is the lockdown regulations themselves which supply a non-exhaustive list of “reasonable excuses” to leave home that includes this reason in section 6 (2) (d): “to provide care or assistance, including relevant personal care within the meaning of paragraph 7(3B) of Schedule 4 to the Safeguarding of Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, to a vulnerable person, or to provide emergency assistance;”
So lets assume that the account given in the Downing Street statement is accurate. It would thus appear that Cummings anticipated the possibility of he and his wife becoming sufficiently ill to be unable to look after the child, and took his family to a residence in Durham, near his extended family who could provide support during the self isolation, including looking after the child should that become necessary. In doing so, he took the risk of spreading the disease if for any reason they had to make contact with others during the journey (e.g. if they stopped at services for a bathroom break for their 4 year old child).
The defence of this action is that the “exceptional circumstance” Harries mentioned, and the get out clause in the guidance and the lockdown regulations themselves all permit this.
For this to be the case, it seems to me that both of the following conditions must apply for this to fit with the guidance:
- Cummings and his wife were unable to find friends, relatives or other support in London to deal with this possibility.
- Cummings extended family were unable to come to London, even to take the child back to Durham to be cared for whilst the parents were ill, let alone stay in London to provide support.
Remember Cummings and his wife were both symptomatic and decided to drive 250 odd miles, risking spreading the disease if they had to stop along the way, so for this to be reasonable in the circumstances (to trigger the “exceptional circumstances”) you pretty much have to assume they had no other realistic choice than the action they took. That seems unlikely to me.
For it to fit with the lockdown regulations themselves means we must either interpret the circumstances as being an unlisted “reasonable excuse”, or interpret provision of care to the child to cover temporarily moving to a different residence so that the person who could provide the care if both parents fell ill would be able to do so. Maybe one of these could be argued in a court of law by a skilled lawyer but it is not obvious to me that this interpretation would stand unless the 2 conditions above applied.
In the meantime, I expect there will be numerous cases of families where both parents were worried about falling ill but stayed put because of the government’s guidance and instruction to do so, who will be looking at this situation with incredulity and anger.