Boris Johnson is accused of using the phrase "last gasp" on a call pleading for more ventilators to fight coronavirus.
Sources say the Prime Minister made the ill-judged remark during a summit last night with 60 manufacturers including Ford, Honda, Vauxhall and Rolls Royce, in which he asked them to produce ventilators for the NHS.
An industry source said the Prime Minister used the call to urge the number of ventilators to rise from around 7,000 now to 30,000 in just two weeks.
But participants on the call claimed Prime Minister "joked" that the drive could be known as “Operation Last Gasp.”
The claim emerged when a source told Politico London Playbook the PM used the phrase. Later, another source with knowledge of the call told the Mirror the Prime Minister did indeed use the phrase.
"He was trying to be jovial throughout," the source said. "It seems he felt that was maybe a way to lighten the mood – but perhaps not everybody took it in that vein."
Downing Street refused to comment on the "last gasp" claim, including on whether it denied Mr Johnson made the remark. Mr Johnson declined to answer whether the language was appropriate when asked by the Mirror at a press conference.
Mr Johnson used last night's call to ask firms to step up the production of "vital medical equipment" including ventilators.
Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, also joined the call.
The Mirror's source said despite the remarks the call was "professional" and firms wanted to help the national effort.
They said firms could not simply switch over existing production lines, but may have room on site and staff who could help make ventilators.
However, the source warned they were yet to receive a "detailed blueprint" of what the government needed.
It's understood the NHS now believes it has access to 7,000 or so ventilators, 2,000 more than the 5,000 cited by Health Secretary Matt Hancock over the weekend. A government source insisted the number would "rise all the time".
A Downing Street spokeswoman said last night: "The Prime Minister made clear that responding to coronavirus and reducing the spread of the peak requires a national effort.
"He asked manufacturers to rise to this immediate challenge by offering skills and expertise as well as manufacturing the components themselves.
"Businesses can get involved in any part of the process: design, procurement, assembly, testing, and shipping.
"He set the ambition for industry to manufacture as many new ventilators as possible, so we can all help the most vulnerable and our NHS, whose staff have been working round the clock."
Any business who is able to help should phone the BEIS Business Support Helpline on 0300 456 3565 or visit this web page.
Downing Street said the helpline has already received more than 400 calls from firms looking for information on how they can contribute.
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