Prime Minister Boris Johnson has denied claims that he said he would rather let “bodies pile high’ than enforce another Covid lockdown.
Mr Johnson allegedly made the remarks after reluctantly accepting a second lockdown in autumn last year, but Downing Street has strongly denied the allegations.
The comments come as the PM is involved in a very public and bitter fall-out with his former adviser Dominic Cummings over the handling of the pandemic, leaked text messages and the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat.
Reports suggest the former No 10 adviser has audio recordings of many of his conversations while in Downing Street and has put together a dossier of allegations.
He is reportedly expected to use his appearance before a committee of MPs next month to challenge Mr Johnson.
How has Boris Johnson responded?
The Prime Minister has said that the lockdowns have been working and insisted that the public wanted the government to focus on tackling coronavirus as he faced questions about the bitter briefing war that has hit No 10.
Mr Johnson was accused of making the remarks after begrudgingly agreeing to a second lockdown, suggesting he was prepared to face a mounting death toll rather than order a third set of restrictions.
The Daily Mail first carried the claim that he said he would rather see “bodies pile high in their thousands” than order a third lockdown.
The paper did not name the source for the allegation, which was later also reported by the BBC citing “sources familiar with the talks”, but ministers hit out at “gossip” spread by “unnamed advisers”.
Speaking to reporters in Wrexham on Monday (26 April) about the remarks, Mr Johnson said he did not make the comments, adding: “I think the important thing I think people want us to get on and do as a government is to make sure that the lockdowns work.
“They have, and I really pay tribute to the people of this country, this whole country of ours, really pulled together and, working with the vaccination programme, we have got the disease under control.”
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove has also backed the PM, saying he had “never heard language of that kind” in the meeting where Mr Johson ordered England’s second lockdown.
The decision on the second lockdown last autumn was leaked and is the subject of an inquiry to find the so-called “chatty rat” who tipped off the press.
Appearing before MPs, the UK’s most senior civil servant declined to say whether Mr Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings had been cleared over that leak, as the former aide has claimed.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) that it is “probable” that the culprit will never be identified, but said the Prime Minister did not try to block the investigation.
Mr Cummings has accused Mr Johnson of seeking to block the investigation after learning that a close friend of his fiancee Carrie Symonds had been implicated, a claim Mr Johnson has denied.
In an incendiary blog post, Mr Cummings went on to say that Mr Case had told Mr Johnson that neither he nor the then No 10 director of communications, Lee Cain, was the culprit.
The Cabinet Secretary declined to comment on the suggestion, telling the MPs: “I am not trying to frustrate, but this is drawing me into details of an ongoing investigation which – for reasons I have set out – I can’t go into in this setting.”
Pressed if he knew of an investigation being stopped because the outcome would be embarrassing, Mr Case said: “No, in relation to this particular leak and others, the Prime Minister has always been clear, very determined to see these inquiries complete.”
Mr Cummings to give evidence next month
Mr Cummings released his onslaught after he was accused by No 10 of a series of damaging leaks, including text message exchanges between Mr Johnson and the entrepreneur Sir James Dyson.
Ministers are now concerned at what he might say next month when he is due to give evidence to MPs investigating the government’s response to the pandemic.
The PM’s former aid is known to have been critical of Mr Johnson’s delay in launching a second lockdown in England when cases were rising last autumn, and there is speculation he could seek to blame him for the high death toll.
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