Downing Street fails to deny report that Boris Johnson said UK should ‘ignore’ threat from Covid

BBC reports PM warned an ‘over-reaction’ to emerging threat could do more harm than good

Rob Merrick,Andrew Woodcock
Tuesday 16 March 2021 08:26 GMT
Boris Johnson says he was 'shaking hands with everybody' weeks before coronavirus diagnosis

Downing Street has failed to deny explosive claims that Boris Johnson privately said the UK should “ignore” the spread of Covid-19 when the virus first emerged a year ago.

The prime minister’s official spokesman was repeatedly pressed at a Westminster media briefing on the claims, made in a BBC documentary drawn from anonymous interviews with government insiders.

But four times he did not contest the report, pointing instead to the PM’s public comments about protecting the NHS and saving lives.

The prime minister warned an “overreaction” to the threat emerging as China imposed the world’s first lockdown could do more harm than good, the BBC report said.

He was also told to follow government advice to stop shaking hands – only to infamously then say, of his visit to Covid patients in hospital: “I’ve shaken hands with everybody.”

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“The general view was it is just hysteria. It was just like a flu,” a source told the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, saying there was a “lack of concern and energy”.

The prime minister was even heard to say of coronavirus: “The best thing would be to ignore it,” the report claimed – as it became clear there was no ‘Emergency break-the-glass’ plan to unveil.

Asked whether it was true that Mr Johnson had privately said it was best to ignore coronavirus, the PM’s spokesman said: “I would point you back to what the prime minister said at the time.

“It has always been our focus to reduce the rate of transmission, protect the NHS and save lives. That’s what we have sought to do throughout the pandemic.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have been guided by the best scientific advice and medical data available to us. That’s what the prime minister has based his decisions on.”

An unnamed Cabinet minister quoted in the report was also strongly critical of the decision to open up the economy in the summer and the reluctance to lock down again, when infections soared again.

“We knew there was going to be a second wave and there was a row about whether people should work from home or not – it was totally ridiculous,” the minister said.

In September, “a small group inside Downing Street repeatedly tried to change Johnson’s mind” and convince him to lock down, but struggled to persuade him, Ms Kuenssberg claimed.

The account comes as the UK prepares to mark the anniversary of the first lockdown, after the death toll surged past a once-unthinkable 125,000 fatalities.

Notoriously, in February last year, Mr Johnson skipped multiple meetings of the Cobr emergency committee as he relaxed for 12 days with his fiancé at the grace-and-favour country home of Chevening.

He is facing growing criticism for refusing to start a public inquiry into the mistakes he has admitted were made, despite promising one last summer.

The report said that, before the first major coronavirus briefing on 3 March, the prime minister was prepped by aides to say people should stop shaking hands with each other – which was government scientific advice.

But he said the exact opposite, telling journalists: “I’ve shaken hands with everybody,” about visiting a hospital with Covid patients.

The comment demonstrated “the whole conflict for him – and his lack of understanding of the severity of what was coming”, the BBC was told.

There was even talk of “chicken pox parties”, where healthy people might be encouraged to gather to spread the disease, as the government flirted with ‘herd immunity’.

That was not considered as a policy proposal, Ms Kuenssberg was told, but whether suppressing Covid entirely could be counter-productive was.

A Downing Street spokesperson told the BBC: “The prime minister was very clear at the time he was taking a number of precautionary steps, including frequently washing his hands. Once the social distancing advice changed, the prime minister’s approach changed.”

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