Boris Johnson has denied saying he would prefer to see "bodies pile high in their thousands" rather than introduce a third coronavirus lockdown, dismissing the claim as "total, total rubbish". But cabinet office minister Michael Gove stopped short of denying that the British prime minister had said the words as reported in the Daily Mail on Monday and subsequently confirmed by the BBC and ITV News.
Mr Johnson's flat denial was echoed by defence secretary Ben Wallace and by the prime minister's official spokesman. Mr Johnson said the public was more interested in the work the government was doing.
“What I certainly think is that this country has done an amazing job with the lockdowns. And they’ve been very difficult. And they’ve been very tough for people. And there’s no question about that. Nobody wants to go into a lockdown but they’ve helped us. The discipline the public has shown has helped us to get the numbers of cases down very considerably,” he said.
Mr Johnson is alleged to have made the remark last October after Mr Gove and other ministers persuaded him to introduce a second lockdown, warning that failure to do so would see soldiers deployed to keep people out of overwhelmed hospitals.
“No more f***ing lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands,” the prime minister is reported to have said.
Mr Gove told MPs that he found it incredible that the prime minister would say such a thing and said he had not heard him do so but he did not deny that Mr Johnson spoke the words.
“People have been pointing out, quite rightly, that tens of thousands of people were dying. The prime minister made a decision in that meeting to trigger a second lockdown. He made a subsequent decision to trigger a third lockdown. This is a prime minister who was in hospital himself, in intensive care. The idea that he would say any such thing, I find incredible. I was in that room. I never heard language of that kind,” he said.
The allegation follows a succession of charges against the prime minister by his former aide, Dominic Cummings, last week, after Downing Street accused Mr Cummings of leaking information.
Mr Cummings claimed Mr Johnson wanted to halt an investigation into who leaked details of the second lockdown last year because the trail was leading to an official who was a friend of the prime minister's fiancée Carrie Symonds. And he said Mr Johnson planned to get Conservative donors to secretly pay for the cost of an expensive renovation of his Downing Street flat.
Cabinet secretary Simon Case appeared before a parliamentary committee on Monday to answer questions about Mr Cummings's allegations. Mr Case said he could not comment on anything to do with the leak investigation but he told MPs he was conducting a review of the refurbishment of the prime minister's flat.
Labour's Rachel Reeves described the prime minister's alleged comment about bodies piling high as "stomach-churning" and she accused him of trampling over the ministerial code.
“The prime minister is now corrupting the standards of public life expected in high office as he dodges questions and tries to cover up payments for the luxury refurbishment of his flat, feathering his own nest and possibly breaking the law through undeclared loans. As for leaks, we are seeing the pipes burst with the sewage of allegations. People say that a fish rots from the head down,” she said.