Watch: PM denies 'bodies could pile high’ comment
Boris Johnson has denied making "sickening" comments that he would rather see “bodies pile high in their thousands” than order a third COVID-19 lockdown in England.
The PM was branded a “disgrace” over the alleged comments, reported in the Daily Mail.
The explosive claim was repeated by ITV political editor Robert Peston, who said two eyewitnesses had corroborated the story.
The Daily Mail said Johnson made the pronouncement after a heated debate in October in which Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove made the case for introducing the second lockdown, and Johnson made it clear he would not agree to a third.
He is reported to have said: “No more ****ing lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands.”
England subsequently went into a third national lockdown at the beginning of January.
The prime minister has been dogged by accusations throughout the COVID pandemic that his decisions to delay lockdowns are a significant factor behind the UK's devastating death toll.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called the alleged comments “sickening”.
In a tweet, he wrote: “Boris Johnson is a disgrace.”
The prime minister denied the claims on Monday.
Asked if he said the phrase in question, Johnson said: “No, but 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.
Other ministers jumped to the PM's defence.
Gove told MPs he was in the meeting when Johnson is alleged to have made the comments and said he “never heard language of that kind”.
He said in the House of Commons: “The PM made a decision in that meeting to trigger a second lockdown, he made a subsequent decision to trigger a third lockdown. This is a PM who was in hospital himself in intensive care. The idea that he would say any such thing, I find incredible."
Mental health minister Nadine Dorries said: “This is an outright lie. Not one named source or substantiated fact.”
She tweeted that the report was “mendacious, vexatious co-ordinated gossip given in order to negatively influence the outcome” of upcoming local elections.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace told Sky News: “Look, it is not true, it has been categorically denied by practically everyone.
“We are getting into the sort of comedy chapter now of these gossip stories – unnamed sources, by unnamed advisers talking about unnamed events.
“None of this is serious. The prime minister has been utterly focused on delivering, alongside cabinet colleagues, the response to COVID.”
In a separate interview on Monday with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Wallace called the claims “ludicrous”.
He said: “I’ve known the prime minister for many years, that is not the prime minister I know – that is just nonsense.”
Watch: Dominic Cummings lashes out at Boris Johnson over leak allegations
The reports come at a difficult time for the prime minister, who is currently plagued by a number of scandals and a growing conflict with his controversial former adviser Dominic Cummings.
Cummings has accused the PM of blocking an investigation into the leak of plans for a second lockdown after Johnson learned that a close friend of his fiancée Carrie Symonds had been implicated, a claim the prime minister denied.
No 10 sources have suggested that it is Cummings who briefed the plans the the media, alongside a series of damaging leaks including text message exchanges between Johnson and the entrepreneur Sir James Dyson.
Cummings, who left his senior adviser role last November, also claimed Johnson had considered asking Tory donors for funds to pay for the lavish refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. Number 10 insists the cost was met by the prime minister.
Cummings is due to give evidence next month to MPs investigating the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
International trade secretary Liz Truss insisted Johnson had complied fully with the rules and had paid for the refurbishment, which reportedly ran to £200,000, out of his own pocket.
But she repeatedly refused to say whether the bill was initially settled by the Conservative Party, or one of its donors, in which case it should have been declared as a loan under party funding rules.
Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner said there was a “real stench” around the government and called for the Electoral Commission, which polices the party funding rules, to launch a full inquiry.
The Cummings spat is another unwelcome distraction for the prime minister, following claims last month from US businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri that she had a four-year affair with Johnson.
Last week, Johnson was asked in a press conference if he had acted with “honesty” and “integrity” in his relationship with Arcuri, who received £126,000 of public money in the form of grants for her tech business.
The prime minister gave a one-word reply: “Yes.”
Watch: Boris Johnson paid for Downing Street flat revamp, says minister