Fresh claims about Boris Johnson are "not true" and a "comedy chapter" in an ongoing Westminster briefing war, a cabinet minister has told Sky News.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace strongly rebuffed newspaper allegations the prime minister told colleagues in October that he would rather see "bodies pile high in their thousands" than have a third COVID lockdown.
The Daily Mail on Monday reported Mr Johnson told a Number 10 meeting at the time: "No more ****ing lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands!"
But Mr Wallace told Sky News the claim was "not true", while Number 10 said the newspaper report was "just another lie".
"It’s been categorically denied by practically everyone," Mr Wallace added.
"We’re getting into the sort of comedy chapter now of these gossip stories – unnamed sources by unnamed advisers talking about unnamed events.
"None of this is serious."
Mr Wallace said Mr Johnson and his cabinet ministers had been "utterly focussed" on their response to the COVID crisis.
"All the ‘who said, what said, what said’, I’ll leave that to the Oscar gossip columns that are now being rolled out today after last night, I’ll leave that to the Hello magazines of the world," he said.
"But government is focussed on delivering for the citizen a COVID response."
The Daily Mail reported Mr Johnson’s alleged comments were made at the end of October as the UK was hit by a second wave of coronavirus infections.
According to the newspaper, the prime minister was given a warning by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove that – without new restrictions – soldiers would be needed to guard hospitals overrun with COVID patients.
Mr Johnson agreed to fresh measures but also vented his frustration during the meeting, said the Daily Mail’s account of the meeting.
On 31 October last year, the prime minister announced a month-long lockdown in England throughout November.
A "chatty rat" leak inquiry was launched at the time – and is still ongoing – after briefings to the media about the pending restrictions led Mr Johnson to announce the November lockdown earlier than planned.
After a brief reopening, England went back into a national lockdown again in January as ministers highlighted the impact of the Kent variant of the virus.
Labour has called on Mr Johnson to make a public statement "as soon as possible" to address the claims in the Daily Mail report.
Asked about his reaction to Mr Johnson’s alleged comment, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: "I think like everybody reading that I was astonished to see those words.
"It’s for the prime minister, I think now, to make a public statement about that.
"If he did say those things then he’s got to explain it. If he didn’t, go on the record and publicly explain what was said and what wasn’t said.
"Because I think everybody will be deeply concerned – not least all those families that have lost someone during this pandemic."
The allegation about Mr Johnson’s comments at the Number 10 meeting in October comes amid a bitter feud between Downing Street and the prime minister’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings.
Last week, Number 10 "sources" were quoted in newspapers as blaming Mr Cummings for recent leaks about the prime minister’s private conversations.
But Mr Cummings hit back and denied "false accusations".
He went on to make a series of explosive claims in a 1,000-word blogpost about Mr Johnson, in which he also questioned the prime minister’s "competence and integrity".