LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday (Apr 26) denied a press report which quoted him as allegedly saying he would rather see “bodies pile high in their thousands” than impose a third national lockdown on the country.
The Daily Mail claimed that Johnson made the comment in the fall of 2020, when his government imposed a second lockdown to combat a surge in coronavirus cases. A third lockdown was ordered in January as infections shot up again, driven by a new, more contagious variant of the virus.
The Daily Mail did not cite a source for the claim, but there has been a spate of leaks from Johnson’s 10 Downing St office, which are being investigated by government officials.
Johnson said on Monday that the allegation was “total, total rubbish".
"The important thing I think people want us to get on and do as a government is to make sure that the lockdowns work," he told reporters.
Speaking on the campaign trail for UK-wide local elections on May 6, he insisted the "stuff that people are talking about" in Westminster were not issues being raised on the doorstep.
Britain has spent much of the last year under restrictions on business and daily life as it tried to contain a COVID-19 outbreak that has left more than 127,000 people dead, the highest toll in Europe. Restrictions are gradually being eased alongside a mass-vaccination campaign that has given at least one dose of vaccine to half the UK population.
The latest claim follows allegations of cronyism and ethical breaches against Johnson and his Conservative government that have been piling up ahead of local and regional elections next week.
The prime minister's former top aide, Dominic Cummings, claimed last week that Johnson planned to get Conservative Party donors to fund the refurbishment of the prime minister's Downing Street apartment. Cummings, who left his job late last year, said he had told Johnson the plan was “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal".
Johnson’s office said the prime minister paid to renovate the apartment, where he lives with fiancée Carrie Symonds and their baby son Wilfred, though it did not say whether he had been lent the money for the work.
The main opposition Labour party wants an urgent inquiry into Cummings' claims made in an explosive blog post.
"We cannot go on like this day after day with the drip, drip, drip of allegations," said Labour leader Keir Starmer.
"We need to get to the bottom of it because I think for a lot of people, this is beginning to feel very strongly like one rule for them and another rule for everybody else.
The Electoral Commission, which regulates political finances in the UK, has said it is seeking answers from the Conservative Party over whether any sums should have been declared under the law on political donations.
Johnson has also denied doing anything wrong when he exchanged text messages with a wealthy industrialist and promised he would “fix” the tax rules for him.
The exchange occurred in March 2020 when Johnson was trying to encourage vacuum cleaner tycoon James Dyson to make ventilators for the hard-pressed National Health Service. Singapore-based Dyson sought assurances that his staff members would not have to pay extra taxes if they came to Britain to work on the project.
Johnson said he would not apologise “for shifting heaven and earth” to secure vital medical equipment in an emergency.
Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the UK parliament, went further in demanding Johnson step down if his comments are confirmed.
"These comments are utterly abhorrent. If they are true, @BorisJohnson has a duty to resign," he tweeted.
"The Prime Minister must now come to Parliament to give a statement, and face questioning on these shocking claims and the growing Tory sleaze scandal engulfing Westminster."
Johnson, who spent several days in hospital intensive care with COVID-19 last year, has faced sharp criticism over his handling of the pandemic.
READ: British PM Johnson launches search for COVID-19 antiviral treatments
Britain is one of the countries worst hit in the world by the disease, and more than 127,000 people have died.
But increasingly the prime minister is facing questions over his wider judgement and integrity, following weeks of stories about alleged inappropriate lobbying and special favours.
Simon Case, Britain's most senior civil servant, was questioned by lawmakers over the allegations against Johnson, his ministers and officials, which Downing Street have dismissed as false.
To the MPs' frustration, Case said he could not offer further comment on the leak inquiry or the Downing Street refurbishment, citing ongoing investigations.
Johnson's spokesman told reporters: "The prime minister will abide by and does abide by all rules in terms of declaring interest in transparency returns."
Case was also grilled about a separate probe into last month's collapse of Greensill Capital, which triggered the opposition accusations of sleaze after former prime minister and Greensill adviser David Cameron personally lobbied ministers. Cameron denies wrongdoing.
Founder Lex Greensill had the run of Cameron's Downing Street for years, with security clearance and a government business card, but officials have been unable to determine his employment status then.
Asked if the situation was alarming, Case replied "yes".