Sunak to face Covid inquiry after claims Eat Out to Help Out spread virus
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will be quizzed about the impact Eat Out to Help Out had on the spread of coronavirus.
When Sunak appears before the Covid Inquiry on Monday, December 11, he will hear allegations his scheme fuelled the spread of the virus. It comes after WhatsApp messages revealed top scientists referred to Sunak as “Dr Death, the Chancellor” over concerns about his push to keep economic activity going while leading the Treasury during the pandemic.
At the inquiry the PM will be grilled on whether he believed scientists were handed too much power and whether there was insufficient consideration given to the impact of the Covid lockdowns. It will mark a crucial week for Sunak as he faces a crunch vote on his Rwanda plan on Tuesday.
However Cabinet minister Michael Gove has defended the Prime Minister’s decisions when he led the Treasury. Gove says there was no “public critque” of Eat Out to Help Out when it launched in August 2020.
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But Professor Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, is said to have privately referred to the scheme to boost the restaurant industry as “eat out to help out the virus”. Sir Patrick Vallance, who was chief scientific adviser, said he and Sir Chris could not recall being consulted in advance about the scheme that cost hundreds of millions of pounds.
Giving evidence to Baroness Hallett’s inquiry, Sir Patrick said the scheme was “highly likely” to have fuelled deaths. Gove however argued the policy was announced a month before it was brought in.
He said it was “not the case that there was a public critique” at the time. Speaking on Sky’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips programme, he said: “It was an effective way of ensuring that the hospitality industry was supported through a very difficult period, and it was entirely within the broad outlines of rules about social mixing that prevailed at the time.”
The plan formed part of Mr Sunak’s summer economic update on July 8 2020, and provided 50% off the cost of food and/or non-alcoholic drinks. Former deputy chief medical officer Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam said the scheme “didn’t feel sensible” because it was encouraging exactly what officials had been trying to stop in previous months.
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One of Sir Patrick’s diary entries recorded Dominic Cummings, who was Boris Johnson’s chief adviser in Downing Street at the time, saying Sunak “thinks just let people die and that’s OK”.
It is understood that the inquiry has shared with its core participants an interview Sunak did with the Spectator magazine in August last year. In it, Sunak claimed he “wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off” between the economic and social impacts of lockdowns and their benefits to suppressing the virus.
He discussed the “problem” of handing power to scientists, adding: “If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed.”
Sunak may also face questions over his WhatsApp messages, or lack of them. He has reportedly told the inquiry that “having changed my phone a number of times over the last three years” he no longer has access.
Lawyers representing bereaved families from the four UK nations will also question Sunak, as will long Covid groups and the Trades Union Congress.
The union’s assistant general secretary Kate Bell said: “The Prime Minister must come clean about why these decisions were taken – especially when senior government advisers were warning that people couldn’t afford to stay home when sick.
“The failure to provide proper financial support was an act of self-sabotage that left millions brutally exposed to the pandemic.”
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