British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government is "bleeding credibility" over senior aide Dominic Cummings, who is facing calls to resign for a journey during the coronavirus lockdown.
"One cabinet member says they were 'stunned' by the PM's statement, with government 'bleeding credibility' to keep Cummings in a job," according to a tweet from ITV political correspondent Paul Brand.
Mr Johnson put his own authority on the line yesterday evening as he fought to save Mr Cummings in the face of growing demands to fire the adviser.
Mr Johnson said he understood why Mr Cummings had travelled 400km to seek care for his four-year-old child when he was supposedly self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms. He said that while he understood public anger and confusion, Mr Cummings's actions were "sensible and defensible".
"When he had no alternative, I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent and I do not mark him down for that," Mr Johnson said at a press conference in 10 Downing Street.
"I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly and legally and with integrity, and with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of the virus and saving lives."
Further reports yesterday suggested he took a second trip to north-east England in April, having already returned to London following his recovery from coronavirus.
NHS guidelines state that those experiencing virus symptoms should "not leave your home for any reason".
Mr Cummings's movements have sparked a storm of criticism, with politicians across parties calling for him to lose his job. Conservative MP and Brexiter campaigner Steve Baker led the revolt from within the Tory Party, saying Mr Johnson would lose precious political capital if he failed to fire Mr Cummings.
But the prime minister said he had held "extensive, face-to-face conversations" with his aide and concluded his actions were fair.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson's decision to stand by his man was an insult to the sacrifices made by the British people since the country was put on lockdown in late March.
"This was a test of the prime minister and he has failed it," Mr Starmer said. "The prime minister's actions have undermined confidence in his own public health message at this crucial time."
The controversy comes at a highly sensitive moment for Mr Johnson, with Britons beginning to chafe after two months of lockdown and as fatalities from the virus have topped 36,000.
That gives Britain the worst death toll in Europe and the highest in the world after the US.
One top health adviser said Boris Johnson had "trashed" all the advice he had been given on building the public trust need for lockdown to work.
Professor Stephen Reicher is on the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) that feeds analysis and advice to the scientists on the UK Government's emergency panel.
Following the prime minister's defiant defence of his chief adviser, Prof Reicher tweeted that he had completely undermined efforts to get the public to stick to lockdown rules.
"I can say that in a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson has trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control Covid-19," he wrote.
The prime minister faced a barrage of questions from journalists yesterday over his adviser.
The central charge against Mr Cummings is one of hypocrisy - with one rule for the governing elite and another for the rest of the country.
Mr Johnson took the issue head on: "As far as I can see, he stuck to the rules."
Official guidance is "clear" that people with childcare difficulties do not need to observe the same strict lockdown rules, Mr Johnson claimed.
"It's absolutely responsible of Dominic Cummings to see the risk to his family and to see the risk to his child and to take steps to avert it."
Asked whether he understood why the public may feel angry over a sense of double standards, Mr Johnson said he accepted the point.
Mr Johnson also confirmed a plan to partly reopen schools on June 1.
Before the press conference, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon encouraged Mr Johnson to dismiss Mr Cummings, citing her own "tough" experience of having to let go of Scotland's chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, after pictures emerged of her twice visiting her holiday home during lockdown.
Meanwhile, an investigation has been launched into a since-deleted tweet from the official UK Civil Service twitter account, posted 20 minutes after the news conference finished, stating: "Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?"