The Italian health minister has undermined the government’s repeated denials by recounting a conversation between the two leaders on 13 March, as the pandemic neared its peak.
“I spoke with [Giuseppe] Conte to tell President Conte that I’d tested positive [for coronavirus].” Pierpaolo Sileri told Channel 4’s Dispatches - although Mr Conte is actually the prime minister.
“And he told me that he’d spoken with Boris Johnson and that they’d also talked about the situation in Italy. I remember he said, ‘He told me that he wants herd immunity’.
“I remember that after hanging up, I said to myself that I hope Boris Johnson goes for a lockdown.”
The strategy was only abandoned in favour of the lockdown the week after Mr Johnson spoke with Mr Conte, when an Imperial College study warned it could lead to 250,000 deaths.
Dispatches also quotes a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) condemning ministers’ complacency in February.
“We already knew that this virus was going to cause an awful lot of death and disability and would require an awful lot of NHS resource,” Professor Graham Medley tells the programme.
“So it was with some dismay that we were watching senior politicians behaving in a way that suggested that this was not something that was too serious.”
Prof Medley also confirmed reports that the government was told in late February – long before the Imperial College study – that half a million people could die in the UK without a lockdown.
This is believed to be the projected figure if no restrictions were introduced, about double the death toll under the “mitigation” strategy only replaced by a full lockdown on 23 March.
“We had been saying it on Sage ... from the end of February,” said Prof Medley at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“It was a public perception that something changed on 16 March, but nothing changed within SPI-M [the scientific pandemic influenza modelling group] or within Sage other than a palpable relief that this was being seen as a very serious event.”
The revelations are likely to form a crucial part of any public inquiry into the Covid-19 response, although Mr Johnson has refused to confirm one will be held.
A Downing Street readout of the 13 March call with Rome read: “The two leaders discussed the importance of taking a transparent and science-led approach in response to the virus.
“They also agreed on the need for international coordination, including through the G7, and they agreed a call between G7 leaders would be a good opportunity to do that.”