‘Trumpesque’ PM stops top experts answering questions about Dominic Cummings

Boris Johnson has been accused of “Trumpesque” behaviour after intervening to stop the government’s top experts from answering questions about Dominic Cummings.

The prime minister stressed he wanted to “draw a line” under the furious row over the actions of Mr Cummings, his chief adviser, during Thursday’s coronavirus briefing from Downing Street.

Mr Cummings is facing calls for him to resign due to his lockdown trips, with Durham Police finding he “might” have committed “a minor breach” of the rules.

However, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance – who flanked the prime minister at Thursday’s briefing – were not afforded the opportunity to offer their view on whether other people should follow the example of Mr Cummings.

Responding to a question asked of Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick about Mr Cummings, Mr Johnson said: “I’m going to interpose myself, if I may, and protect them from what would be an unfair and unnecessary attempt to ask a political question.

“It’s very, very important our medical officers and scientific advisers do not get dragged into what most people would recognise as fundamentally a political argument.”

The prime minister repeated that it was “very important our advisers are protected from being dragged into political controversy” when a second reporter asked Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick whether they feared compliance with the lockdown rules could now be reduced due to Mr Cummings’s behaviour.

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Sky News deputy political editor Sam Coates then asked whether Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick were “entirely comfortable with the prime minister telling you that you can’t answer questions about Dominic Cummings”.

Prof Whitty replied: “I can assure you that the desire not to get pulled into politics is far stronger on the part of Sir Patrick and me than it is on the prime minister.”

And Sir Patrick added: “I’m a civil servant, I’m politically neutral, I don’t want to get involved in politics at all.”

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In a break with previous Downing Street news conferences, journalists were not allowed follow-up questions and their video links appeared to be muted as Mr Johnson moved on to other reporters’ contributions.

At the weekend, Dr Jenny Harries – England’s deputy chief medical officer – did answer questions related to Mr Cummings’s actions at a Downing Street briefing.

Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick had been scheduled to appear at Monday’s Downing Street briefing – which followed Mr Cummings giving his explanation of his lockdown trips – but were axed from the line-up.

Number 10 later said Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick “didn’t need to take part” in Monday’s briefing as the prime minister thought most of the questions that day would be focussed on Mr Cummings’s statement.

Following Thursday’s news conference, at which Mr Johnson set out the latest easing of the coronavirus lockdown, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “Nobody should be stopped from answering questions from journalists but it’s the prime minister here that’s in issue.

“He’s been too weak throughout this whole episode. He should have acted swiftly.

“If I’d been prime minister I would have sacked Dominic Cummings, we’ve now effectively wasted a week when we should have been concentrating on the safety of what comes next.”

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner accused Mr Johnson of “Trumpesque” behaviour, in reference to the US president, adding: “Not a good look at all.”

Ian Murray, the executive director of the Society of Editors, described the prime minister’s decision to intercept questions about Mr Cummings as “unfortunate”.

ANALYSIS: It is not yet clear whether there will be longer term consequences from Cummings row

By Joe Pike, political correspondent

Grandparents can see their families for the first time in months.

That’s the headline Number 10 were hoping to see on the front of tomorrow’s newspapers, as the prime minister set out further measures to lift the lockdown in England.

But yet again the Downing Street news conference was dominated by tricky questions about Dominic Cummings’s journeys around the North East.

The most eye-popping moment was when Boris Johnson blocked his two most senior scientific and medical advisers from answering two successive journalists’ questions on the topic.

When reporter number three – Sky News deputy political editor Sam Coates – tried again, asking if Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty were entirely comfortable with not being allowed to speak (“if you can’t give a verbal answer, a nod or a shake of the head will suffice”), the prime minister relented.

They argued that as civil servants, they didn’t want to be drawn into politics.

But some claim this is now a matter of public health if people stop following the rules because of the actions of Mr Johnson’s chief adviser.

Even if – as now seems probable – Mr Cummings keeps his job, it is not yet clear whether there will be longer term consequences.

Next week from Monday to Thursday, Dermot Murnaghan will be hosting After the Pandemic: Our New World – a series of special live programmes about what our world will be like once the pandemic is over.

We’ll be joined by some of the biggest names from the worlds of culture, politics, economics, science and technology. And you can take part too.

If you’d like to be in our virtual audience – from your own home – and put questions to the experts, email afterthepandemic@sky.uk

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