NUMBER 10 has furiously denied claims that Boris Johnson’s most senior advisor suggested letting pensioners die was a price worth paying to protect the economy.

A report in yesterday’s Sunday Times said that at a private engagement at the end of February, Dominic Cummings outlined the Government’s strategy for tackling the coronavirus outbreak. One person present said it amounted to “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.

That quote – often incorrectly attributed to Cummings – was spread far and wide on social media yesterday.

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A Downing Street spokesman moved quickly to deny the report: “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.”

But it is not disputed that in the past 10 days the UK Government, and Cummings, radically changed approach on how to to deal with the outbreak.

That change came on March 12 when the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (Sage) examined modelling from Imperial College London and realised that their initial estimates were massively wrong.

A week earlier, the death toll was estimated to be about 100,000. But this new modelling revealed that unmitigated – if the government did nothing at all – the actual number of fatalities would be closer to 510,000. Even if mitigated and the government took some action it would still be around 250,000.

Before that meeting the government’s philosophy was based on herd immunity – allowing a large percentage of the population to become infected, with the theory being that once they’ve recovered or they’ve been vaccinated against coronavirus, the pool of people who can catch the disease has been reduced. This, the theory goes, would prevent a much worse second wave of the disease next winter.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK Government’s chief scientific adviser, said that about 60% of the population would need to get the coronavirus in order to get a herd immunity effect.

However, at a March 12 meeting, Cummings, in what one of the paper’s sources dubs a “Damascene conversion”, Cummings changed his mind. By Friday last week, the advisor had become the most outspoken advocate of a tough crackdown.

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It came as Boris Johnson said the UK Government is ready to impose tougher restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus if people do not follow the guidance on social distancing.

The number of people across the UK who have died after testing positive for Covid-19 has risen by 48 to 281, including patients aged 18 and 102 – thought to be the youngest and oldest victims so far.

The Prime Minister insisted that he did not want to close down access to parks and playgrounds because of the benefits to people’s mental and physical wellbeing.

But amid reports of crowds flocking to parks, beaches and beauty spots, he said the Government was ready to impose the kind of “tougher” measures adopted in other European countries if people did not behave responsibly.

He said: “If people can’t make use of parks and playgrounds responsibly, if they can’t do it in a way that observes the two-metre rule then of course we are going to have to look at further measures.”

He later added: “I don’t think you need to use your imagination very much to see where we might have to go, and we will think about this very very actively in the next 24 hours.”

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has been appointed “designated survivor” if Johnson comes down with the virus.

Some in the Cabinet had backed Michael Gove for the position.