Minister denies Johnson said ‘thousands’ more Covid deaths better than lockdown

A woman looks at the memorial wall of more than 150000 hearts each representing a coronavirus death in evening sunlight in London in April
A woman looks at the memorial wall of more than 150,000 hearts, each representing a coronavirus death, in evening sunlight in London in April.

Ben Wallace says reports Boris Johnson made the comments at No 10 meeting in October are ‘gossip’

A senior minister has said a report that Boris Johnson said he would rather see bodies piled “high in their thousands” than order a third lockdown is untrue.

The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, also dismissed claims that the government was “sleazy” amid mounting allegations that the prime minister accepted undeclared donations from Conservative donors.

Wallace’s denials came after the Daily Mail reported an unnamed source as claiming Johnson said at a Downing Street meeting in October: “No more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands.”

The incendiary claim follows a briefing war this weekend between Johnson and his former key adviser Dominic Cummings, who resigned from his No 10 job after what was believed to be a power struggle with Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds.

“Look, it is not true. It has been categorically denied by practically everyone,” Wallace told Sky when asked about the reported remark.

Wallace said the claims were “gossip”. “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.”

He added: “All the ‘who said, what said’, I’ll leave that to the Oscars gossip columns that are now being rolled out today after last night.”

Johnson is facing a stream of allegations about his muddled initial handling of the Covid-19 crisis, questions over who financed the redecoration of his Downing Street flat, and claims that multibillion pound contracts have been handed to party donors.

Downing Street named Cummings on Thursday as a source of a number of damaging leaks about the prime minister. Cummings hit back on Friday, denying he was the source and casting Johnson as incompetent and lacking in integrity.

Cummings said Johnson’s plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation of his Downing Street plan were “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations”.

On the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, the defence secretary said Johnson paid for the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat “out of his own pocket” and that all the rules were followed.

“As the prime minister has been clear, the prime minister paid personally for the flat. The prime minister has complied at all stages with the rules and we’ve been very clear on that.

“We have engaged with the Electoral Commission and we will continue to engage with that,” he said.

Wallace said he did not “recognise” suggestions that Johnson had asked Tory donors for financial help to pay for the upgrades, saying they were “based on a large amount of speculation”.

He added: “The prime minister, as I’ve said, paid for it out of his money. The action he did was he paid the money for the flat out of his own pocket.”

Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, is expected to be questioned on Monday about Cummings’ claim that the prime minister tried to quash a formal leak inquiry – the so-called search for a “chatty rat” – because it implicated a friend of Symonds.

Case will appear on Monday afternoon before the public administration and constitutional affairs committee.

Lord Barwell, who served as Downing Street chief of staff under Theresa May, said the briefing war between No 10 and Cummings “has the potential to be extremely destabilising”.

The former Tory minister told Times Radio: “I think there will be huge frustration among Conservative MPs, councillors and candidates with the elections approaching in early May that this appears to be an entirely self-inflicted wound, that this story that we’re all talking about was prompted by either someone in No 10 –or the prime minister himself allegedly – accusing Dominic Cummings of being behind all the recent leaks.

“There are some significant unanswered questions still and we’ve seen further revelations over the weekend and in this morning’s papers – clearly, potentially there is more information that might get released.”

Barwell said the inquiry into the so-called “chatty rat” leak regarding last year’s November lockdown had taken “a long time”.

“My own experience working for Theresa when we had a very serious leak from the national security council and she asked the cabinet secretary to conduct a very aggressive inquiry to find who was responsible is that actually it only took a matter of days to go through everybody’s phones and email communication, so this has been going for four or five months now and I think MPs will want to know why it has taken so long and where it has got to.”

source: Rajeev Syal