British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday denied airily dismissing the prospect of thousands dying from Covid-19, as a row over government “sleaze” escalated with a call for his resignation.
In a front-page headline, the Daily Mail newspaper reported Johnson had said he would rather see “bodies pile high in their thousands” than impose a third coronavirus lockdown.
Ultimately, Johnson did order a new round of restrictions in January.
But he is now locked in a war of words with his former top aide Dominic Cummings over his coronavirus policies last year and financial dealings.
Asked if he made the remark, Johnson told reporters: “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.”
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.
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.”
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 coronavirus pandemic.
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.
Cummings, the strategist behind the 2016 campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, quit Downing Street in December under a cloud of acrimony.
The former senior adviser wrote on his personal blog on Friday that Johnson had sought to use potentially illegal donations to renovate his publicly funded Downing Street accommodation.
Cummings also wrote that Johnson had raised the prospect of blocking an internal inquiry into leaks because they could implicate a close friend of his fiancee Carrie Symonds.
Simon Case, Britain’s most senior civil servant, is to be questioned by lawmakers later on Monday over the allegations against Johnson, his ministers and officials, which Downing Street have dismissed as false.
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.”