Sedgefield MP Paul Howell said Boris Johnson’s chief aide set a bad example but the “vast majority” of people know “if Dominic Cummings jumped over a cliff they wouldn’t follow him”.
“Some of them might push him but that’s a different story completely,” he joked, while speaking to HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast.
Howell also criticised Boris Johnson’s “unfortunate” focus on his so-called Operation Moonshot plan to give millions of people in the UK daily quick-result coronavirus saliva tests, when many people are struggling to access swab antigen tests now
The Tory MP, who is chairing a new all party parliamentary group on left behind communities, also urged the government to take action on its levelling up agenda now, despite the twin crises of Brexit and Covid, stressing people in deprived areas want a “hand up rather than a hand out”.
Howell spoke as he was returning from Westminster to his constituency in County Durham, which is under new Covid-19 restrictions covering almost two million people in the wider north-east.
Asked whether Cummings’ behaviour during the height of the national lockdown could undermine the local restrictions, Howell told Commons People: “We certainly got significant communications, shall we say, at the time when that happened, at least as much as most other MPs.
“The inbox filled fairly rapidly as to the comments about what he should or shouldn’t have done.
“And it didn’t set a good example and it doesn’t help.
“But I would say that the vast majority of people in the north-east are sensible enough to know if Dominic Cummings jumped over a cliff they wouldn’t follow him.
“Some of them might push him but that’s a different story completely.
“Seriously, the whole message on this, I know it’s all the nuances around lockdown and what you can and can’t do, but there’s a very simple message there – use your common sense and keep apart from people when you can.
“If Dominic didn’t use his in that situation, that’s his problem, we’ll do our things right.”
Howell meanwhile said the government was right to be looking at ambitious projects like Operation Moonshot, but questioned the rhetoric and timing of the announcement.
“If we didn’t look at anything other than Covid you’d be criticised for not looking beyond the current environment,” he said.
“If you looked at too ambitious a project people would say why aren’t you focusing on the day job?
“You’ve got to do both.
“But it’s not a black and white choice.
“Some of the vocabulary, in terms of ‘moonshots’ and things, I’m not sure I agree with them.
“The way that’s expressed, I don’t think that’s the best way to do it personally.”
Howell went on: “It’s unfortunate that you talk about terminology like moonshots and things like that when unfortunately at this specific point in time whilst having some challenges on the sharp-end delivery.
“Had you been in a situation where everything is ticking along quite nicely, even if that’s an appropriate phrase at the moment, to then be talking about going beyond that and getting better might have been a little bit better with the people that are struggling to get tests.
“The vast majority of people are getting the tests that they need but a significant number are not.”
Meanwhile, Howell urged the government to make a start on its levelling up agenda despite the huge challenge of dealing with the economic fallout of Covid and Brexit.
He said community wealth funds could be introduced to “show intent” now and signal a “direction of travel” to “start to reach out to some of these communities.”
Howell said: “What we want to do clearly is to make sure that the agenda we have in terms of trying to improve opportunities for life outcomes of these communities still happens, that we do engage with the levelling up agenda, or build back better, that these communities don’t have to go back to where they were before Covid, they have to be a damn sight better.”