Challenged at a fiery committee meeting to say whether parents should “do as Dominic Cummings did”, Mr Johnson said only that they should “take account” of any “exceptional circumstances”.
Pressed again, he said parents with suspected Covid-19 and struggling with childcare may have to “vary your arrangements”, but without saying how.
Labour’s Yvette Cooper accused him of “ducking” the critical question on the nation’s lips, telling Mr Johnson: “The reason you are not giving people a direct answer is you are trying to protect Dominic Cummings.”
An annoyed prime minister hit back, insisting: “I’m not ducking it”, accusing critics of his key aide of “party political point-scoring”.
But Ms Cooper told him he was “trashing” the public health message needed to get coronavirus under control, in order not to “incriminate Dominic Cummings”.
Accusing him of repeating earlier mistakes that had led to “40,000 dead”, Ms Cooper said: “You have a choice between protecting Dominic Cummings and putting the national interest first. Which will it be prime minister?”
In a difficult 90-minute gruelling – which Mr Johnson hinted he would not repeat – the prime minister also:
* Was criticised for laughing when asked how many women in decision-making roles would be “enough”, Tory committee chairman Bernard Jenkin telling him: “It’s not a joking matter though, is it?”
* Admitted the UK failed to have sufficient testing capacity when the pandemic broke out – despite, in early March, describing the UK’s preparation as “fantastic”.
“The brutal reality is this country didn’t learn the lessons of Sars or Mers and we didn’t have a test operation ready to go on the scale that we needed,” he told the MPs.
* Suggested he would bring a coronavirus economic recovery package before parliament before MPs leave for the summer on 21 July.
* Refused to guarantee a return by the end of July – despite having been quizzed by only half the committee, purely on Covid-19 – saying: “The trouble is it does take a lot of preparation time.”
On the Cummings controversy, Mr Johnson did acknowledge “public indignation’ – after MPs reported unprecedented anger from constituents – but stood by his embattled aide.
He claimed “a lot of allegations were simply not correct” – without naming any – and dismissed the row as “a political ding-dong about what one adviser may or may not have done”.
Criticism also came from Conservative members of the liaison committee, Simon Hoare – one of 40-odd Tories demanding Mr Cummings is sacked – questioning the aide’s extraordinary power.
“I don’t think anyone can understand why Dominic Cummings is so pivotal in dealing with coronavirus,” he told the prime minister, adding: “This has become a distraction.”
Asked, by Labour’s Meg Hillier, if he had “seen the evidence” to prove the aide had not broken the rules, Mr Johnson eventually replied: “If it pleases you, I will say yes I did” – but he refused to release it.
And he ducked repeated calls to say which allegations against Mr Cummings were false, claiming – wrongly – that he had previously done so.
People wanted him to be “focusing on how to go forward on the test-and-trace scheme, protecting their jobs and their livelihoods and defeating this virus”, Mr Johnson claimed.
Pressure continued to grow for Mr Cummings to be dismissed, with two more Conservative MPs, Giles Watling and Pauline Latham, making at least 44 calling for him to go.
Penny Mordaunt, a cabinet office minister, told her constituents there were “inconsistencies” in his account of his lockdown trip to Durham – when his wife had suspected coronavirus symptoms – and that she could “fully understand how angry people are”.
“Despite Mr Cummings’ statement yesterday [on Monday], I am personally still not clear of the facts,” she wrote.
“I am not clear about when he would have been symptomatic and on what dates he should have been in isolation. Or whether it was appropriate he drove home at the time he did.
“There is no doubt he took risks – refuelling at a petrol station is a risk to oneself and to others, which presumably he did.”
And Sajid Javid, the former chancellor who quit Mr Johnson’s cabinet, told his voters: “I do not believe Mr Cummings’ journey to County Durham to isolate on his family’s estate was necessary or justified.
“I remain unconvinced his visit to Barnard Castle could be considered reasonable.”
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