The office of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has hit out at reports that a key aide argued pensioners should be allowed to die in the face of the coronavirus crisis.
In a statement, 10 Downing Street has said it rebuffed as “a highly defamatory fabrication” claims that Dominic Cummings argued the preservation of the British economy should take precedence over calls for strict measures meant to contain the virus.
According to The Sunday Times, the view of Mr Cummings, a controversial pro-Brexit campaigner, was "if that means some pensioners die, too bad".
Mr Johnson’s office dismissed quotes in the piece as “invented” and said it had not been given an opportunity in advance to comment on the article.
The British government was widely criticised at the end of last week because of its relatively light-touch approach to the coronavirus crisis. While other European nations ordered the closure of businesses like cafes and restaurants, the UK seemed to be pursuing a policy of developing “herd immunity” within the population.
According to The Sunday Times, Mr Cummings reversed his position when confronted with modelling presented by Imperial College London academics which showed as many as half a million people could die in the UK if stricter measures were not imposed.
“This is a highly defamatory fabrication which was not put to No 10 by the Sunday Times before publication. The article also includes a series of apparent quotes from meetings which are invented,” a 10 Downing Street spokesperson said.
The UK government is scrambling to toughen its response to the coronavirus outbreak amid criticism it did not act quickly enough to close schools, pubs and restaurants. Britain has 5,018 confirmed cases of the virus and 233 deaths but is following a similar contagion path to hard-hit Italy, which now has the most virus deaths in the world at 4,825.
Mr Johnson warned late on Saturday that Britain will face a crisis on the scale of Italy's in just two or three weeks, saying the health system will be "completely overwhelmed" if people do not heed instructions to stay home and avoid contact with others now.
In a message to the nation, Mr Johnson has urged Britons to avoid traditional mothers' day celebrations on Sunday.
"If your mother is elderly or vulnerable, then I am afraid all the statistics show that she is much more likely to die from coronavirus," he said. "This time, the best thing is to ring her, video call her, Skype her, but to avoid any unnecessary physical contact or proximity."