Boris Johnson continues to back his senior aide Dominic Cummings, saying an investigation into his actions would not be a “good use” of time.
The prime minister also said the UK is “coming down from level four to level three” on the government’s coronavirus alert system and he hopes to make a further announcement on that this week.
He is being grilled by a senior group of politicians known as the liaison committee – the first time he has faced them since he became leader – amidst a growing Tory revolt and plummeting poll ratings over the Cummings row.
Asked why he had not ordered an investigation into Mr Cummings’s actions, Mr Johnson replied: “I’m not certain, right now, that an inquiry into that matter is a very good use of official time.
“We’re working flat out on coronavirus.”
Mr Johnson was also asked by Liaison Committee chairman Sir Bernard Jenkin whether the government’s “moral authority” had been undermined by the Cummings row.
He replied: “This has really been going on for several days now – in the media at least.
“I, of course, am deeply sorry for all the hurt and pain and anxiety that people have been going through throughout this period – this country has been going through a frankly most difficult time.
“We are asking people to do quite exceptionally tough things, separating them from their families.”
The prime minister insisted he would not be adding to his previous comments on Mr Cummings and said the public wanted politicians to focus on “uniting our message” and “focusing on their needs”.
Mr Johnson has stood by Mr Cummings’s side after he was widely criticised for making three trips during the lockdown, which the top aide says were to seek childcare help from his family in Durham.
One government minister has already quit in protest and the housing secretary admitted “many people across the country” are also aggrieved.
Mr Johnson told the parliamentary committee it was time for Britain to move on from what he described as a “very, very frustrating episode” when Cummings was accused of violating the lockdown rules.
He said: “It’s been a very, very frustrating episode and I understand why people have been so concerned, because this country is going through a horrendously difficult time.
“I totally understand public indignation, I totally understand that, but I do think that… it would be much better if we could now move on and focus on the next steps.”
Robert Jenrick told Sky News earlier that “many people across the country, including many of my colleagues in parliament, believe he made the wrong decisions”.
But he insisted Mr Cummings “acted reasonably” and “did obey the guidelines”.
Mr Cummings has said he does not regret decamping 260 miles away from his London property while Britons were being told to “stay at home” – and dismissed the revelation he was spotted in Barnard Castle, a 30 minutes’ drive from Durham, claiming he took the trip to test his eyesight.
He has not apologised for his actions and said he had no intention of quitting during a Downing Street news conference held three days after the reports of his movement first surfaced.
Mr Johnson used his appearance at the committee on Wednesday to announce that NHS England’s test and trace system would be up and running from Thursday.
He said people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus will be ordered to self-isolate for 14 days.