The political adviser’s defence relies on a specific section of the government’s coronavirus regulations – one that was actually created to protect people fleeing domestic abuse. Jess Phillips, the shadow domestic abuse and safeguarding minister, has said it was not designed for situations of “childcare crisis”.
On the face of it, the Dominic Cummings scandal is not a story about gender. But there are strikingly gendered elements to it, tangled up with wider issues of class, power and privilege. The prime minister’s top adviser says he was concerned there would be no one to care for his child if both he and his wife became ill. It’s a predicament that will be horribly familiar to many single parents in the UK, around 90% of whom are women. These parents will have had to imagine or live through frightening worst-case scenarios over the last nine weeks – and most of them will not have rural family estates to flee to, in the event that they needed to call on their teenage nieces to babysit.
That’s not the only aspect of the Cummings story that has sparked anger. Many are also outraged that his defence appears to rest, at least in part, on a clause in the government’s official coronavirus restriction regulations that was designed to safeguard survivors of domestic abuse and their children.
The day after The Mirror and The Guardian published their first reports about the adviser’s trip to Durham, deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries suggested that strict lockdown rules could be bent where a child’s welfare was at risk, saying: “There’s always a safeguarding clause in all of the advice.” But Jess Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, has pushed back against the use of this clause to excuse Cummings’ actions.
“The regulation Cummings is leaning on was put in because of domestic and child abuse in the home,” the MP for Birmingham Yardley wrote on Twitter. “To say to people who felt their children were not safe could leave.” Phillips added that it was not introduced to support people experiencing a “childcare crisis”.
The clause in question states that “during the emergency period, no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse”. One such reasonable excuse, according to the rules, would be “to avoid injury or illness or to escape a risk of harm”.
At first glance, the ‘escaping risk of harm’ exemption might sound relevant. The prime minister’s adviser travelled to Durham because he wanted to avoid any risk of harm to his child, right? (We can’t apply the ‘avoiding illness’ defence to Cummings’ behaviour, given that his wife was already displaying Covid-19 symptoms when they travelled up north, and sitting in a car with a symptomatic person for 260 miles is not exactly an effective way of dodging a virus.)
But that doesn’t change the fact that the clause was not introduced with normal pandemic childcare issues in mind – and Cummings, as one of the key people involved in creating the rules, should know that.
In reality, the wording was explicitly targeted at situations where people needed to escape abusive situations at home under lockdown. It was included in the regulations after extensive conversations between government ministers and domestic abuse charities, when it became clear that many people experiencing abuse were worried they would not be able to flee their homes during lockdown. It was intended to make crystal clear to survivors – as well as police – that risk of domestic abuse was a valid reason for breaking lockdown. And given that more than two-thirds of survivors currently experiencing abuse say the problem has got worse since Covid-19 reached the UK, according to a survey by Women’s Aid, it was a vital addition.
Unfortunately, the line is open to interpretation. Similarly woolly is another clause in the government’s official guidance published in March, which states that people living with children should follow the government’s advice “to the best of your ability, however, we are aware that not all these measures will be possible”. This section has also been highlighted by Cummings’ defenders, who say that parents are clearly allowed to drop certain rules if they feel unable to follow them.
We now know that problems arise when people are able to interpret the law in a way that best suits them. But the vast majority of the public have not scoured the rules for loopholes. We haven’t gone through the regulations and found vaguely-worded clauses that were designed to protect people much more vulnerable than ourselves – but which can nevertheless be exploited to our advantage.
Instead, we’ve listened to the government’s broad, blunt, seemingly unequivocal instruction: stay home. Is it any wonder we’re angry?
The National Centre for Domestic Violence offers a free, fast emergency injunction service to survivors of domestic violence regardless of their financial circumstances, race, gender or sexual orientation. Text NCDV to 60777, call 0800 9702070, or visit ncdv.org.uk
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