Boris Johnson resolutely defended Dominic Cummings when the furore over him forced an unscheduled appearance at the coronavirus press briefing on Sunday.

But while the prime minister, speaking at the daily Downing Street conference, said he thought that Cummings, had acted “responsibly, legally and with integrity”, he left many questions unanswered, skirted around key issues and provoked fresh fury among Tory MPs and political opponents alike.

Johnson insisted Cummings had not broken any guidelines by travelling to Durham for childcare reasons

Mr Cummings did isolate for 14 days or more and the circumstances of his self-isolation were determined by the difficult childcare position that he found himself in … the guidance makes it very clear that where you have particular childcare needs that has got to be taken into account.

Johnson did not make clear which guidance he was referring to. Cummings’ home is in London, and the government rules at the time were specific – stay at home.

The prime minister himself had implored people not to travel and visit relatives. Cabinet Office advice was also emphatic: “Leaving your home – the place you live – to stay at another home for a holiday or other purpose is not allowed. This includes visiting second homes.”

Asked by reporters on Saturday for her reading of the exemptions in the coronavirus guidelines, the deputy chief medical officer for England, Jenny Harries, suggested that an exemption would be “unless there is an extreme risk to life”. Nobody has suggested this was the case with Cummings and his family.

Johnson did not explain how Cummings got to Durham in the first place. Was it by car? If so, did stop on the way. By train? If so, was he with other passengers? Nor was there any detailed explanation for why the couple’s childcare needs could only be catered for with a 260-mile trip to Durham, rather than in London.

Johnson said some of the allegations made against Cummings were false and that he had acted to stop the spread of the virus

Though there have been many other allegations about what happened when he was in self-isolation and thereafter, some of them palpably false, 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.

Again, Johnson did not specify which of the allegations he regarded as “palpably false”. But when he was asked a direct question about whether Cummings had taken a trip to Barnard Castle during his stay in Durham, Johnson ignored the question, and said that what Cummings had done more generally was “sensible and defensible”. He said Cummings had been in self isolation for “14 days or more” and had behaved responsibly.

But if Cummings did go to Barnard Castle on 12 April, as the Guardian reported, that would seem to be a very clear and obvious breach of the lockdown guidelines, whether or not his 14-day period of isolation was at an end.

Barnard Castle is close to 30 miles from the house where Cummings was staying. It is exactly the kind of day trip that ministers, in briefing after briefing, have urged millions of people not to make but to “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”.

Johnson said Cummings had behaved as any parent would have done, and denied it was one rule for some and another rule for others

Is this government asking you – the people, the public – to do one thing, while senior people here in government do something else?… I think he followed the instincts of every father and every parent. And I do not mark him down for that.”

The PM’s defence of Cummings’ paternal instincts begged an obvious question that he did not answer.

Do instincts come before rules and guidelines? As the Tory MP, David Warburton, tweeted shortly after the briefing: “We’ve all been tasked with tempering our parental, and other, instincts by strictly adhering to govt guidance.”

Tim Montgomerie, creator of the ConservativeHome website, went further. “In a pandemic the messages the government puts out have to respected. And if you have a key adviser flouting those rules and no apology, that is a terrible failure on the part of government. That is a terrible undermining of government communications. We have come to realise how reliant Boris Johns is on Dominic Cummings as an adviser. I’m afraid he has chosen to stick with him. If Johnson loses Cummings, he risks losing the whole operation he has surrounded himself with.”

In a tweet, the Labour MP Jess Phillips said: “The instincts of most other fathers in the country was to look after their partner and children at home.”

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