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Boris Johnson said he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than impose another coronavirus lockdown, his former chief strategic adviser has claimed, years after the former UK prime minister dismissed the allegation as “total rubbish”.
Lord Eddie Lister told the official inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday that he recalled Johnson had made the damning comments in September 2020.
The inquiry is examining the UK government’s response to the pandemic, including the country’s preparedness and senior decision-making.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, previously claimed that he had heard the prime minister say in his private Number 10 study that he would prefer to “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than impose another lockdown — something that Downing Street and Johnson himself strenuously denied.
Cabinet ministers had also been quick to reject the claim, which was first reported in the Daily Mail newspaper and confirmed by Cummings during seven hours of parliamentary testimony in May 2021.
In his witness statement to the inquiry, Lord Lister said on Tuesday: “In September 2020, the R number was rising. A circuit breaker was proposed in response to this increase and the health secretary was pushing hard for this to take place.
“However, the opposition to any form of lockdown was intense. I recall the PM saying in September 2020 that he would rather ‘let the bodies pile high’ than impose another lockdown.”
Lister, who was at Johnson’s side during his rise through the highest offices in British politics and is a close ally, added: “Whilst this was an unfortunate turn of phrase, it should be borne in mind that by this point the government was trying to avoid a further lockdown given the already severe impact on the economy and education.”
A spokesperson for Johnson said on Tuesday that the former prime minister would “give oral evidence to the inquiry in due course”.
Lister also revealed that Johnson had offered to be injected with coronavirus on television to “demonstrate to the public that it did not pose a threat” in early 2020.
The former adviser could not confirm the exact date the offer was made, telling the inquiry: “It was a time when Covid was not seen as being the serious disease it subsequently became. It was a moment in time — I think it was an unfortunate comment.”
In April 2020 Johnson was admitted to hospital with Covid-19 and spent time in intensive care.
The inquiry has heard claims of a “toxic” culture in Downing Street as senior officials grappled with the unfolding crisis.
Private messages published on Tuesday showed cabinet secretary Simon Case telling colleagues he had told Johnson that “top-drawer people” were refusing to work in Number 10 because of the “toxic reputation” of his operation.
Case said: “At this rate I will struggle to last six months. These people are so mad. Not poisonous towards me (yet), but they are just madly self-defeating”. He added that he had “never seen a bunch of people less well-equipped to run a country”.
The inquiry is due to run until the summer of 2026.
Additional reporting by George Parker