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PM’s adviser risked lives, bishops warn

27 May 2020

Cummings’s actions have reduced trust in guidance, they say


A protester outside Downing Street, on Wednesday

A protester outside Downing Street, on Wednesday

IT IS for the public to decide whether Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s senior adviser, produced a satisfactory explanation for his trip from London to County Durham during the lockdown, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, has said.

On Monday afternoon, Mr Cummings said that 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.

A defence of Mr Cummings by the Prime Minister the previous day had drawn fierce criticism on Twitter from 14 serving bishops. Boris Johnson had said: “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.”

Dr Walker said afterwards: “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 Worcester, Dr John Inge, described Mr Johnson’s defence of Mr Cummings as “risible” and “an insult to all those who have made such sacrifices to ensure the safety of others”.

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, wrote on Twitter on Monday morning that some in Durham would defend Mr Johnson for standing by Mr Cummings. “But most who have worked so hard to abide by the rules and guidance of the past weeks will feel hurt, angry, & let down. Trust has been broken. For the nation’s sake rebuild it quickly.”

The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, said: “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.”

Several bishops have said that they received death threats after their comments were reported.

In a Zoom briefing for journalists on Tuesday, organised by the Religion Media Centre, Dr Walker was asked whether, having heard Mr Cummings’s defence of his actions, he should still be sacked.

“I think I want to see how the public respond to what was said yesterday,” Dr Walker said. “Clearly, we now know a lot more information. I think, as he himself admitted yesterday, he really should have said all that rather sooner than he did. . .

“What matters now is whether the public are satisfied that that’s a sufficient explanation for them to feel that the rules are not broken, so that they can go on and feel that they continue to abide by the rules.

“What matters in this most of all is that we stay safe, that we protect ourselves against the virus, and not just how I protect me and my immediate family, but how I am part of the process by which society protects itself against the virus. And that means not just keeping to the outer limits of the law: it means keeping to the spirit of the law, and that notion, the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law, is one that’s at the heart of many Christian and other religious traditions.”

Dr Walker said that he had been moved to post his criticism of Mr Johnson after hearing him defend Mr Cummings on the basis that he had been following his instincts.

“That, for me, is what made it a specifically religious question, because actually world religions have spent the best part of several thousand years saying that untrammelled human instinct is not a sufficient and adequate guide,” Dr Walker said.

“Human instinct might help me to protect myself and my immediate family, but human instinct is not good enough to help me seek the welfare of the common good, the community, the nation of which I am a part.”

If the Prime Minister could justify an action by appealing to instinct, “then what do any guidelines, what do any rules, what do any laws mean? Everybody caught breaching the guidelines could simply say ‘It was my instinct.’”

Dr Walker emphasised that he had not intended to say in his post that the Church might not be able to work with the Government to tackle the pandemic if Mr Cummings was not sacked. “I specifically singled out ministers. I was saying I’d lost trust in government ministers. . . We will . . . continue to work with civil servants, with local government, with the police, with the health service, with journalists, with other parts of civil society.”

He had objected to the way in which senior government ministers had “seemed to all be rallying round to say ‘Nothing to see here, folks. No wrong has been done,’ after those people had been telling us, in the Church and other walks of life, don’t just keep the letter of the law, keep the spirit of the law, keep well within the law, don’t push this to the edges. I felt that my trust had been broken.”

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, Dr Inge said that an explanation for Mr Cummings’s behaviour had been sorely needed, because “trust in the Government and its advice is absolutely crucial. . . It was a matter of life and death, because if trust in the Government’s advice is eroded, then people’s lives will be put at risk, because people will not any longer take government guidelines seriously, and there will be a second spike, which will cost thousands of lives.”

Had Mr Cummings given his explanation earlier, Dr Inge said, it “would have taken some of the heat out of it”.

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, said on Tuesday: “My own focus and that of all of the bishops is not so much on ‘Should this guy get scalped?’ The focus is how can you trust the Government.”

Mr Cummings’s explanation on Monday had shown that “a little bit of honesty is better than no honesty at all,” but it had shown a “seeming inability to admit regret”.

Bishop Bayes continued: “For someone who is so good at giving clear messages, to take refuge in the small print — it throws shade on the ability of our Government to give us all clear messages. . .

“I’m not saying you can’t trust the Government any more, but I’m saying they’ve undermined credibility, and one way to get it back would be a little bit more expression of public regret and what you might call repentance, to use Christian language. What we’re getting, instead, is [the message] ‘We never made any mistakes: you should have read the small print. Trust us for the future.’ A better message would have been a slightly humbler message.”

The Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd Mark Strange, wrote to Mr Johnson on Monday “to mark my disappointment and anger at the response made by you and members of the UK Government” to Mr Cummings’s actions.

“I have been contacted by many members of our Church who are equally disappointed, disillusioned and, in some cases, simply heartbroken by the situation you and those around you have placed them in,” he said.

Mr Cummings’s explanation on Monday afternoon presented “nothing new which could justify his failure to follow the rules”, Bishop Strange said. “Unlike others, including Ms Catherine Calderwood [who resigned last month as Scotland’s chief medical officer after breaching lockdown rules], there was no apology given or remorse shown at the effect of his behaviour, let alone a decision to step down. His decisions will clearly damage the essential messages that are designed to keep us safe.

“The facts of the matter are bad enough, but the defence by those in authority of an action which could bring so many others into danger is frightening. How can you continue to expect those who are struggling with separation from loved ones; those who are fearful for themselves and for their friends; and those who are in extreme emotional and physical distress, to continue to stay safe? Many of them are now thinking: ‘Just one small visit. It will be all right. The Prime Minister doesn’t seem to mind.’”

In an article published on the ViaMedia website on Friday, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, writes of the “solidarity” that people have experienced during the pandemic when clapping for NHS workers on Thursday evenings. “Yet something even deeper has been going on an expression of being in this together even amid the paradox of having to learn to be apart and physically distanced. The recent anger and turbulence around Dominic Cummings is rooted in a sense of this being sorely undermined. Whatever the truth of the detail, solidarity and trust has taken a huge hit.”

In an article published on the Church Times website on Wednesday, the director of research at the William Temple Foundation, Professor Chris Baker, expressed unease about the Bishops’ interventions. “Twitter fame emerges in 24 hours, and dissipates just as quickly,” he wrote. “The Church must reflect urgently on how, and with what narrative, it intervenes in the public sphere.”

At the daily government press briefing on Tuesday afternoon, the Vicar of St Luke’s, Prestonville, in Brighton, the Revd Martin Poole, asked the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, whether the Government would review all penalty fines for families who had travelled for childcare purposes during lockdown.

Mr Hancock replied: “We do understand the impact and the need for making sure that children get adequate childcare. . . I’ll have to talk to my Treasury colleagues before I can answer it in full.” Reports on Tuesday, however, suggested that the Government would not review such fines.

Mr Poole told Sky News after the briefing: “I think people feel a very strong sense that it’s not right that certain people can behave in a way that the rest of us are not allowed to.

“I’m very interested, as a vicar, in unfairness. There are all sorts of different inequalities in our society at the moment, and this is just one of them that needs to be sorted out, and particularly for any families that have travelled, probably worried they were doing the wrong thing, and were stopped and charged a penalty notice. That should definitely be, as far as I’m concerned, refunded if that was allowed.”

Read comment from Chris Baker on the Bishops and Dominic Cummings

Podcast: Paul Vallely and Angela Tilby discuss the Dominic Cummings’s story and the bishops’ reactions

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