The Prime Minister is under renewed pressure to sack his closest aide after allegations that Dominic Cummings broke lockdown rules for a second time.
Boris Johnson had offered his “full support” to his under-fire chief adviser after it emerged Mr Cummings had travelled 260 miles to County Durham in March to self-isolate with his family despite strict restrictions against long-distance journeys.
But according to reports in the Observer and Sunday Mirror, the 48-year-old later made a second trip to Durham and was seen there on April 19 – five days after being photographed on his return to Westminster.
A second eyewitness told the two papers they saw him a week earlier in Barnard Castle on Easter Sunday, a popular tourist location 30 miles away from Durham, during the period he was believed to be self-isolating.
Downing Street has said it would “not waste time” replying to the fresh allegations from “campaigning newspapers”.
In a statement on Saturday morning, Number 10 said Mr Cummings had travelled to be close to family to seek help looking after his four-year-old child after his wife became ill with coronavirus symptoms – a virus which has seen more than 45,000 people in the UK die after contracting it, according to the latest available data.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street briefing, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, added Mr Cummings had “stayed put for 14 days” while residing at a family property, having pre-empted his own illness once his wife showed Covid-19 symptoms.
But the trip to Barnard Castle on April 12, if correct, would call that testimony into question.
According to the papers, 70-year-old retired teacher Robin Lees, of Barnard Castle, said he saw Mr Cummings and his family walking by the River Tees near the town.
He told the Mirror and Observer: “I was a bit gobsmacked to see him, because I know what he looks like.
“And the rest of the family seemed to match – a wife and child. I was pretty convinced it was him and it didn’t seem right because I assumed he would be in London.”
According to guidance issued by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the College of Policing in early April, officers were advised not to punish people for travelling “a reasonable distance” for exercise.
It also stated it was permissible to drive to the countryside for a walk, if more time is spent walking than driving.
He reportedly was heard commenting on how “lovely” the bluebells were during an early-morning Sunday stroll with his wife Mary Wakefield, an editor at the Spectator magazine.
The claims prompted fury among MPs, and Ian Blackford, SNP Westminster leader, renewed his calls for the PM to axe Mr Cummings from his team.
He wrote on Twitter: “It is clear that Boris Johnson must sack Dominic Cummings.
“When the PM’s top adviser ignores the Government’s instruction to the public not to engage in non-essential travel he has to leave office. Immediately.”
A Labour source questioned why senior ministers had defended Mr Cummings in light of the fresh allegations.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden tweeted shortly after the daily press conference had finished, saying: “Dom Cummings followed the guidelines and looked after his family. End of story.”
Labour has, along with the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, written to Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill demanding an inquiry into what happened.
The Labour source said: “If these latest revelations are true, why on earth were Cabinet ministers sent out this afternoon to defend Dominic Cummings?
“We need an urgent investigation by the Cabinet Secretary to get to the bottom of this matter.
“It cannot be right that there is one rule for the Prime Minister’s adviser and another for the British people.”
Acting Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said the PM’s judgment would be called into question if he did not give Mr Cummings the chop.
“If Dominic Cummings is now allowed to remain in place a moment longer, it will increasingly be the Prime Minister’s judgment that is in the spotlight,” said the former energy secretary.
“Surely Boris Johnson must now recognise the actions of his top adviser are an insult to the millions who have made huge personal sacrifices to stop the spread of coronavirus.”
Responding to the allegations, a No 10 spokeswoman said: “Yesterday the Mirror and Guardian wrote inaccurate stories about Mr Cummings.
“Today they are writing more inaccurate stories including claims that Mr Cummings returned to Durham after returning to work in Downing Street on 14 April.
“We will not waste our time answering a stream of false allegations about Mr Cummings from campaigning newspapers.”
A row between Durham Constabulary and No 10 also intensified after the force put out a fresh statement standing by earlier assertions that officers spoke with family members of Mr Cummings, only for the Government to deny it.
A new statement from the constabulary said the Leave campaigner’s father had a conversation with officers after he requested to speak to them.
Durham police said: “On Tuesday, March 31, our officers were made aware that Dominic Cummings had travelled from London to Durham and was present at an address in the city.
“At the request of Mr Cummings’ father, an officer made contact the following morning by telephone.
“During that conversation, Mr Cummings’ father confirmed that his son had travelled with his family from London to the North East and was self-isolating in part of the property.”