Johnson sticks by aide over 'minor' lockdown violation

London (AFP) –


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday stuck by his most senior adviser Dominic Cummings after police said he appeared to have only committed a "minor" lockdown violation and closed the politically charged case.

Johnson's latest attempt to draw a line under a scandal now threatening to undermine his entire response to the pandemic came ahead of Britain's first significant easing of its virus shutdowns starting next week.

Seperate contact tracing systems launched in England and Scotland Thursday, similar to those being adopted in other countries that are starting to emerge from weeks of emotionally crippling confinement.

Johnson was expected to detail what Britons would be allowed to do from the start of next week at his daily briefing later -- recent briefings have been overshadowed by the Cummings scandal.

He has already vowed to open partially schools for younger children on Monday. All non-essential stores could re-open their doors on June 15 if infections remain contained.

The measures apply only to England, since the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are following more cautious schedules that will still see most stores closed for the foreseeable future.

But Johnson still wants everyone to follow social distancing measures and exercise common sense.

He had urged Britain to "move on" from the Cummings case Wednesday, but that was potentially complicated by the now-closed police probe into the top Downing Street aide, who masterminded the 2016 Brexit campaign.

- Blurry vision -

Cummings created a political scandal when newspapers discovered that he left London and made a cross-country trip to stay at his parents' property in early April.

His wife believed at the time she was suffering from the virus and Cummings himself developed symptoms a few days later.

The government orders were for those who suspected they had the virus to stay at home for at least a week. Cummings claimed the rules allowed him to leave the house in order to secure childcare for his four-year-old son.

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.

Durham Constabulary said on Thursday that it "does not consider that by locating himself at his father's premises, Mr Cummings committed an offence."

But it found that "there might have been a minor breach" when the family took a drive to a local beauty spot after they had recovered.

Cummings explained that he had blurry vision and decided to test his eyesight by driving to the picturesque Barnard Castle before returning to London in April.

The local police department said it 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.

"Durham Constabulary view this as minor because there was no apparent breach of social distancing," it said in a statement.

The police department said it had "no intention to take retrospective action" since this would "amount to treating Mr Cummings differently from other members of the public".

- 'Desperate' -

The police findings could still pose a political problem for the British leader.

Several dozen members of his Conservative party have called on Johnson to part with Cummings and even several top Brexit-supporting newspapers have mounted campaigns to force the adviser out.

But Downing Street said Johnson was not changing his mind and considered the matter closed.

"The prime minister has said he believes Mr. Cummings behaved reasonably and legally given all the circumstances and he regards this issue as closed," a Downing Street spokesman said in response to the police statement.

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.