Boris Johnson's official spokesman has three times refused to deny claims the prime minister wanted to ignore coronavirus in the earliest stages of the pandemic last year.
A BBC report about Number 10’s handling of the outbreak claimed Johnson was heard saying early last year: “The best thing would be to ignore it.”
The PM is said to have warned an over-reaction would do more harm than good.
When Johnson’s spokesman was asked on Tuesday if the PM had said these things, he did not deny it.
“I would point back to what the prime minister said and set out at the time.
“It has always been our focus to reduce the cases of transmission, to protect the NHS and to ultimately protect lives.
“That’s what we did when we first locked down the country last year and that’s what we have sought to do throughout the pandemic.”
When it was pointed out he was not denying the claim, the spokesman said: “I’m pointing out that throughout the pandemic what we have done is do what we think was the best course of action in terms of protecting lives and in terms of protecting the NHS.
“That has been our focus throughout the pandemic.”
Watch: Should we be worried about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine?
Asked, again, whether Johnson had said those words privately, the spokesman said: “I’m pointing to what we did and the fact that the prime minister, based on the scientific evidence and medical evidence, made the decisions that we did in order to protect the NHS and save lives.”
On 23 March last year, a couple of months after Johnson reportedly said the virus should be ignored, the outbreak had become so serious that he had to impose a national lockdown. He has since been criticised for acting too slowly to do this.
Johnson himself nearly died of the virus. He was admitted to intensive care in early April, a month after he told, at the first major coronavirus briefing, how he was continuing to shake people’s hands.
The BBC report, by Laura Kuennsberg, said the PM had been told by aides to advise against shaking hands.
Thirteen months on, meanwhile, 125,690 people had died of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, while 4,268,821 had tested positive for it. As of Friday, the latest date for which hospital records are available, 451,346 people have been hospitalised with the virus.
Other stark claims in Kuennsberg's report included:
People in government arguing whether to suppress the virus through lockdowns, or to instead pursue "herd immunity", the idea that enough people could become resistant to a disease through exposure to it. This even extended to talk of "chicken pox parties" in which healthy people would deliberately gather to catch the disease – though, of course, this never became a formal proposal
On 12 March, Johnson set out fresh plans – which were essentially restricted to asking people with mild symptoms to stay at home – to restrict the spread of the virus. During the briefing, he ruled out the cancellation of sporting events and closure of schools. The following day, Kuennsberg reported, advisers shared with the PM a "stark prediction that the plan he had just announced would result in the NHS collapsing under the sheer number of cases".
A quote from one Downing Street official admitting "we were more blind than we told the public", followed by a suggestion this remains the case a year on.
While the UK is beginning to recover from the pandemic, particularly with its hugely successful rollout of the vaccine, Johnson continues to face scrutiny over his handling of the pandemic as a whole – something that will continue until a public inquiry is eventually held.
Watch: How England is leaving lockdown