ANGRY bishops have accused the Prime Minister of lying and undermining trust, after he expressed support for his senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, who travelled from London to County Durham during the lockdown. The Bishop of Manchester has called for Mr Cummings to be sacked.
The Guardian and Daily Mirror reported on Saturday that Mr Cummings had travelled from 260 miles from London to County Durham with his wife, who had coronavirus symptoms. On Sunday, The Observer and Sunday Mirror reported that Mr Cummings and his family also visited Barnard Castle, 30 miles away from Durham, on Easter Day, and that he had been seen again in Durham on 19 April. Downing Street has described the stories as “inaccurate”.
At a press briefing at Downing Street on Sunday afternoon, Mr Johnson said that he had “concluded that in travelling to find the right kind of childcare, at the moment when both he [Mr Cummings] and his wife were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus — and when he had no alternative — I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent. And I do not mark him down for that. . .
“I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly, and legally, and with integrity, and with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of the virus and saving lives.”
After the press briefing, however, numerous bishops joined the criticism of Mr Johnson, saying that his remarks lacked integrity and undermined trust.
The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, wrote on Twitter: “Unless very soon we see clear repentance, including the sacking of Cummings, I no longer know how we can trust what ministers say sufficiently for @churchofengland to work together with them on the pandemic.”
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, wrote on Twitter: “The question now is: do we accept being lied to, patronised and treated by a PM as mugs? The moral question is not for Cummings — it is for PM and ministers/MPs who find this behaviour acceptable. What are we to teach our children? (I ask as a responsible father.)”. He wrote in another post: “Credible leadership depends on trust.”
Bishop Baines was quoted in The Observer on Sunday as saying: “People across the country have sacrificed hugely in order to obey both the spirit and word of government advice. People have missed being with family members who have died.
“But now we learn that there is one rule for the people and another for No 10 and the elite. Ministers have clearly been told to tweet support for Cummings. What price conscience? Or integrity? Or credibility? Or competence at a time when leadership can only be rooted in trust?”
The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, wrote on Twitter on Sunday evening, shortly after the press briefing: “Day 61 #livingdifferently in a nation where the PM has no respect for the people. The bonds of peace and our common life (which had been wonderfully strengthened during the testing by CV-19) have been dangerously undermined this evening.”
The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, also writing on Twitter, said: “I am deeply troubled tonight by the Prime Minister’s briefing. We can forgive mistakes and poor judgement and can understand and admire loyalty but forgiveness and understanding need openness and we did not see this tonight.”
The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, wrote: “The PM tells us that Cummings ‘followed the instincts of every father’ and that he ‘does not mark him down for that’. The point is that thousands and thousands of parents, including me, have not been able to follow their instincts because they felt they had to obey the rules! The PM’s risible defence of Cummings is an insult to all those who have made such sacrifices to ensure the safety of others.”
The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, wrote on Twitter on Sunday evening that he had “carefully steered clear” of politics during the pandemic. “But tonight I must say: the PM & his cabinet are undermining the trust of the electorate and the risks to life are real.”
The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, while not naming Mr Cummings or Mr Johnson, wrote: “Those many millions of people who have followed the Government’s advice and stayed at home, coping with difficulty, did the right thing and still do. Vulnerable people are alive today because of the self-discipline of so many. I thank God for their integrity.”
In another post, he wrote: “ It is not good enough to treat the people of this country like sheep who can be fooled.”
The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, wrote: “In this country, government and the rule of law depend largely and rightly on the principle of consent. But that depends in turn on the consistency, integrity & impartiality of govt and the application of the law. That is now hugely strained. A moment of real and serious concern.”
The Bishop of Reading, the Rt Revd Olivia Graham, wrote: “I find myself deeply worried by the PM’s judgement call on this one. Not from a political perspective but a moral one. His response lacks both integrity and respect and he has just made his task of leading us through this crisis much, much harder.”
The Bishop of Penrith, Dr Emma Ineson, wrote: “Goodness, Dominic Cummings must be really, really valuable to Johnson to be worth what he’s just risked by backing him ie the trust of the British people.”
The Bishop of Ripon, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, said on Twitter: “Integrity, trust and leadership were never there; just a driven misguided ideology of power that has total disregard for the most weak and vulnerable, and those who work to protect and care for us with relatively low pay.
“My parents live in Durham, an hour away from where we live. My father finished radiotherapy treatment just before lockdown. I’ve missed his birthday, Mothering Sunday and countless other catch-ups that would have happened. And that’s a fraction of a story compared with others.”
Later on Monday, Mr Cummings spent more than an hour detailing the events between 27 March and 13 April, and answering questions from journalists. He confirmed the essential facts of his trip from London to Durham, stating that the purpose was to self-isolate where his nieces could provide child care if he and his wife became too ill to look after their four-year-old child.
While there, he made one short journey to collect his child from hospital, and had visited Barnard Castle to check whether his eyesight was good enough for a drive back to London on the evening of Monday 13 April.
At no time during the period had he put anyone else at risk, he said. He had no regrets about his actions, and had acted reasonably and within the law, given that the need for childcare made this an exceptional situation.
Podcast: Paul Vallely and Angela Tilby discuss the Dominic Cummings’s story and the bishops’ reactions