Michael Gove has justified Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle by claiming it was “consistent” with police advice at the time.
Speaking on Sky News, Mr Gove said: “It was part of the National Police Chief’s Council’s (NPCC) guidance that you could drive at that time in order to take exercise.”
But did the guidelines really say that? And was Mr Cummings’ trip consistent with it?
What were the guidelines at the time?
The guidance that Mr Gove appears to be referring to is a document published by the NPCC and the College of Policing, entitled: ‘What constitutes a reasonable excuse to leave the place where you live’. It said that police would allow people to drive in order to exercise.
The College of Policing told FactCheck that these guidelines were first published on April 9 – three days before Mr Cummings made his trip to Barnard Castle on April 12. So it’s true that it was relevant at the time in question.
However, most ordinary people would not have known about the guidance at this point – because most of the media did not find out about it until later.
Most news outlets did not report the new guidance until April 16, which was four days after Dominic Cummings travelled to Barnard Castle.
Of course, it is very likely that Mr Cummings knew about the new NPCC guidance before most people, because he is the prime minister’s most senior aide. But it’s fair to say that the vast majority of people did not know about this at the time.
In fact, official transport data shows that April 12 had among the lowest number of motor vehicle journeys by the UK population as a whole.
Was the trip ‘consistent’ with the guidance?
Michael Gove suggested that Mr Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle was “consistent” with the NPCC guidance. But was it?
Mr Cummings described his trip, saying: “We drove for roughly half an hour and ended up on the outskirts of Barnard Castle town. We did not visit the castle. We did not walk around the town.”
He continued: “We parked by a river. My wife and I discussed the situation. We agreed that I could drive safely, we should turn around, go home. I felt a bit sick. We walked about ten to 15 metres from the car to the riverbank nearby. We sat there for about 15 minutes. We had no interactions with anybody. I felt better. We returned to the car.”
Based on this description, it appears that he drove for half an hour and rested for a further fifteen minutes. Plus there would, of course, have been a return journey as well.
However, he only exercised by walking “about ten to 15 metres”.
So how does this compare to the NPCC guidance at the time?
It’s true that “driving to countryside and walking” was listed as an excuse that was “likely to be reasonable”.
But the guidelines went on to say that this only applied when “far more time is spent walking than driving”.
It added: “Driving for a prolonged period with only brief exercise,” is “not likely to be reasonable”.
The guidance said: “A very short period of ‘exercise’ to excuse a long period of inactivity may mean that the person is not engaged in ‘exercise’ but in fact something else.”
Therefore, Mr Cummings’ account of his trip appears to be counter to what this particular guideline says is “reasonable”. He hardly did any exercise – but still drove for a prolonged period, and sat on a riverbank for a further 15 minutes.
It’s true to say that police guidelines at the time allowed people to drive to the country for a walk.
But although this guidance was technically in the public domain, it was not widely known and reported on until a few days later – after Mr Cummings’ had already made his trip to Barnard Castle.
Furthermore, it does not appear that his trip was “consistent” with the NPCC guidelines anyway, because he drove “for a prolonged period with only brief exercise”. The NPCC guidelines explicitly say that this is not likely to be a reasonable excuse.
However, it’s worth remembering that citing the NPCC guidelines is only one of the defences that people have made of Dominic Cummings.