Tory sources have lent weight to claim PM said he’d prefer thousands of deaths to another lockdown
Boris Johnson during a visit to Llandudno on Monday. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
Boris Johnson faced mounting pressure on Monday night as Conservative insiders added weight to claims that the prime minister said he would rather see bodies pile up than order another lockdown.
Faced with fury from relatives of the bereaved, Johnson and senior ministers emphatically denied he said “no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands” after reluctantly approving a second England-wide lockdown late last year.
The claim followed a briefing war at the weekend between Johnson and his former chief aide Dominic Cummings, who resigned from Downing Street after what was believed to be a power struggle with the prime minister’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds. The government is also facing growing calls for a public inquiry into a pandemic that left the UK with one of the worst death tolls among major economies last year.
First reported in the Daily Mail on Monday, Johnson’s alleged comments were supposedly made after he felt corralled into agreeing to a four-week lockdown in November, months after it was recommended by Sage scientiststo curb soaring coronavirus cases. He apparently warned he would never again back another national lockdown.
ITV reported source claims that the “let the bodies pile high” comments were shouted from an office in Downing Street after a crunch meeting with ministers, rather than during the meeting.
Speaking to the Guardian, a source corroborated that account and hinted that the comments had been heard by a small number of people, outside Johnson’s office. A second source, who did not hear the comments directly, said there had been “chatter” about them in Downing Street last year, though the phrase the source expressly recalled was “no more fucking lockdowns … no matter the consequences”.
The source said they understood the comments to have been made in frustration and underlined that the prime minister went ahead with a third lockdown in January.
Despite on-the-record denials from Johnson and his spokesperson, the BBC also said it had confirmed the remarks with sources, and said they said were made “during a heated discussion in No 10”.
Michael Gove, the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, defended the prime minister in the House of Commons on Monday. “I was in the meeting that afternoon with the prime minister and other ministers … the prime minister made a decision in that meeting to trigger a second lockdown, he made his subsequent decision to trigger a third lockdown,” he told the House of Commons.
“This is a prime minister who’s been in a hospital himself in intensive care. The idea that he would say any such thing I find incredible. I was in that room, I never heard language of that kind.”
One source who spoke to the Guardian said Gove did not hear the comments himself, and suggested that ministers who did not know if the comments were true or not should not deny them so strongly.
Amid growing anger over the alleged comments, Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said: “[Johnson has] degraded the office he holds with rampant and overwhelming sleaze. But making light of the more than 127,000 deaths that happened on his watch and then trying to cover it up is a new low. This must now end.”
The Scottish National party said the prime minister should resign if it was proved that he made the remarks. There have been suggestions that Cummings has taped evidence to back up claims he is poised to make when he gives evidence to MPs next month.
For members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, the alleged comments were “a punch in the stomach to all those grieving” and compounded their anger at the government’s claim it would be too busy for months to launch a public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the pandemic.
Dozens of grieving families took to social media to post pictures and memories of loved ones they lost saying they “were not a body”.
Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said Johnson’s “callous comments will have caused untold hurt to thousands of us. It said that, despite seven requests, Johnson has declined to meet with the group.
“These ‘bodies’ were our loved ones,” it said. “Mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, brothers and sisters, grandparents, husbands and wives. Those who have lost loved ones already have to cope with the lack of dignity many of their loved ones faced as they passed.
“Is it too much to ask that the prime minister would be sympathetic and respectful to our loss? This demonstrates exactly why an urgent inquiry is so vital, to understand the decisions and considerations in protecting our loved ones that the government chose.”
Johnson said suggestions he had made the remarks about letting bodies pile up were “total rubbish”. He said: “What I certainly think is that this country has done an amazing job with the lockdowns. And they’ve been very difficult. And they’ve been very tough for people. And there’s no question about that.
“Nobody wants to go into a lockdown, but they’ve helped us. The discipline the public has shown has helped us to get the numbers of cases down very considerably.” Johnson’s official spokesperson also denied the claims to reporters. “This is untrue and he has denied [saying] that.”