Facing a campaign of leaks from an embittered former right-hand-man, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been forced to deny he said he would rather bodies piled “high in their thousands” than order a third UK coronavirus lockdown.
Mr Johnson is facing a stream of allegations in newspapers – all of them denied – about everything from his muddled initial handling of the COVID-19 crisis to questions over who financed the redecoration of his official apartment.
The Daily Mail newspaper cited unidentified sources as saying that in October, shortly after agreeing to a second lockdown, Mr Johnson told a meeting in Downing Street: “No more f***ing lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands.” The BBC later also reported he made the remark.
Asked whether he had made the remark, Mr Johnson told broadcasters: “No, but again, I think the important thing, I think, that people want us to get on and do as a government is to make sure that the lockdowns work, and they have.”
Comments made in heated discussion
The Daily Mail did not respond to a request for comment, but the BBC later also reported that Mr Johnson made the remark in a “heated discussion” about lockdowns. Reuters was unable to verify the reports.
Though Mr Johnson has over the years repeatedly weathered gaffes, crises over Brexit and disclosures about his adultery, he is now grappling with an array of accusations which opponents say show he is unfit for office.
He or his supporters have denied all of them.
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, who has cast Johnson’s government as “sleazy”, said he was astonished to read the Daily Mail‘s report.
“If he did say those things, he’s got to explain it,” he said.
Mr Johnson did impose a third lockdown in January although critics say it could have been avoided had he yielded to pressure from senior ministers to make the second lockdown more stringent.
The UK has the world’s fifth largest official COVID-19 death toll, with 127,681 deaths, after the United States, Brazil, Mexico and India, according to Johns Hopkins University of Medicine.
Downing Street last week named Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings as the source of leaks against the prime minister.
But Mr Cummings denied he was the source and cast Johnson as incompetent and lacking in integrity.
PM and key adviser fall out hard
Mr Johnson, 56, and Mr Cummings, 49, were once close allies who worked on the successful “Vote Leave” campaign to take the UK out of the European Union in the 2016 referendum.
Mr Cummings also advised Mr Johnson in the 2019 election campaign, which won the Conservatives their biggest parliamentary majority since 1987, but he left the prime minister’s staff suddenly late last year.
Mr Cummings said Mr Johnson had planned to have donors pay secretly for the renovation of his Downing Street apartment, adding that was “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal – and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations”.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace on Monday declined to confirm or deny if Mr Johnson had been given an undeclared loan from political donors to pay for the renovation of the flat.
What mattered now was that Mr Johnson had borne the cost himself, Wallace said.
“Do I think the prime minister is sleazy? No, I don’t,” he told BBC radio.
Asked last month about the refurbishment plans, Mr Johnson’s spokeswoman said all donations, gifts and benefits were properly declared and that no party funds were being used to pay for the refurbishment.