Downing Street has not denied claims that Boris Johnson told aides he would rather let coronavirus “rip” than impose a lockdown last year but said the Prime Minister’s actions were being distorted.
The Prime Minister is facing mounting allegations about his conduct and handling of the coronavirus pandemic following a public spat with former adviser Dominic Cummings.
A growing number of sources were reported to have told how Mr Johnson said he was prepared to let “bodies pile high” rather than order a third shutdown, an accusation which the Prime Minister has branded as “total rubbish” and which No 10 denied.
But Downing Street officials were less clear on a Times report that Mr Johnson told aides in September that he would rather let coronavirus “rip” than impose a second lockdown because of the economic harm further restrictions would cause.
He was reported to have argued during a Government debate in September that lockdowns were “mad” as he raised concerns about the impact on the economy.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I have seen the various reports and speculation which distort the actions of the Prime Minister.
“At all times he has been focused on saving lives and livelihoods.”
The words do not amount to a denial, unlike No 10’s strong rejection of the suggestion Mr Johnson said in October he would rather see “bodies pile high” than announce a third lockdown.
In relation to those alleged remarks, the spokesman said: “He didn’t say it and this is untrue.”
Mr Johnson announced a second lockdown in the autumn, followed by a third in January as cases soared.
Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey backed Mr Johnson and No 10 in the denial of the “bodies” comment, saying she was not aware of any politician who had said “anything like that” as she insisted the public were focused on the pandemic and the road map out of lockdown.
“The Prime Minister says he didn’t say them, and he said that yesterday, I think to Sky, so I take the Prime Minister on his word,” she told Sky News.
“I’m not aware that any politician has said anything like that, or indeed any other person that I’m aware of.
“There’s an element here about trying to keep on with the main task at hand.
“We’ve got through this challenging time, we’re still not out of it, that’s why we’re still encouraging people to take up their vaccines.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said it was upsetting to those who have lost loved ones, telling ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “The remarks are sickening, they are disgusting, they are crass, they are wrong.”
Meanwhile, Ms Coffey defended the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat in Number 11 and said it was “no surprise” that he wanted to make changes, after reports of how he paid for it surfaced.
Downing Street and the Tories declined to deny an ITV report stating that the Conservative Campaign Headquarters paid the Cabinet Office to cover initial costs of the refurbishments, with Mr Johnson now repaying the party.
The swirl of allegations around the Prime Minister come with him embroiled in a public row with Mr Cummings, who until last year was his senior adviser in No 10.
After being accused by No 10 sources, reportedly the Prime Minister himself, of being behind a series of leaks aimed at Mr Johnson, Mr Cummings wrote a blog hitting out at his former boss, saying he had fallen “below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves”.
Ms Coffey said the public will have made “their own judgment” on the former adviser following his press conference in the Downing Street Rose Garden last year after he faced claims about breaking lockdown restrictions.
The Prime Minister stood by Mr Cummings when the senior aide found himself in the eye of a media storm after driving his family to County Durham during the first coronavirus lockdown and then taking a trip to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight.
Ms Coffey told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think that people will have come into contact with Dominic Cummings for the first time last year, when he did a press conference in the Rose Garden.
“They, I’m sure, will have made their own judgment on what they think of that.”