(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he kept government scientists in the dark about his controversial Eat Out to Help Out, an acknowledgment likely to fuel questions over his judgment in pushing a policy that encouraged Britons to mingle in pubs and restaurants during the pandemic.
In a long-awaited appearance at the UK’s official Covid-19 inquiry, Sunak said his signature idea to subsidize meals after the first lockdown was a “micro-policy,” calling the secrecy around the plan normal Treasury practice ahead of “fiscal events.” Yet he also said Eat Out to Help Out was designed to “elicit a behavioral response,” undermining his argument about avoiding disclosure.
Read more: Sunak’s Shift From ‘Dishy Rishi’ to ‘Dr. Death’ Faces UK Hearing
Senior scientists have strongly criticized the high-profile program of August 2020, saying it likely contributed to a steep rise in infections in the autumn that ultimately triggered a second national lockdown that November. Sunak was even branded “Dr. Death the chancellor” by Angela McLean, now the UK’s chief scientific adviser, in private messages, the probe has heard.
The controversy surrounding Eat Out to Help Out is central to the political debate about Sunak, his decisions during the Covid outbreak and suitability for high office. With his Conservative Party trailing Keir Starmer’s Labour by about 20 points ahead of a UK election expected next year, Sunak is eager to portray himself as a strong leader who took difficult decisions to protect the economy during the pandemic when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.
But pandemic politics in the UK are complex and the audience for the Covid inquiry, which aims to learn lessons for future crises while also providing answers and some sense of justice for victims’ groups, is very different to the lockdown-skeptic leanings of Sunak’s ruling Conservative Party.
On Monday, an interview Sunak gave to the Spectator magazine in the summer of 2022, as he tried in vain to persuade grassroots Tories to make him leader, came back to haunt him under questioning from the inquiry’s lead counsel Hugo Keith.
Setting out his lockdown-skeptic credentials then, he complained about not being able to convey his views about the “trade-offs” involved in lockdowns early in the pandemic, and said scientists were given too much power.
Yet that discrepancy, between scientists having too much power on the one hand and the ease with which Sunak ignored them on the other, gave Keith an opening that was the most intense period of the premier’s all-day testimony.
In a typically combative answer, Sunak justified his decision not to discuss Eat Out to Help Out because the reopening of indoor hospitality for the summer of 2022 had already been approved, and that his program was a designed to maximize take-up. It was “longstanding practice” not to discuss economic or fiscal events with health officials, he added.
He also said scientists had “ample opportunity” to raise concerns in several meetings over July and August that year. Still, those meetings were after Sunak had already announced the policy.
The restaurant vouchers campaign ran through August and let people claim 50% off food and drink up to £10 per person. It amounted to an £850 million subsidy to the industry, though it later led to questions about whether it had fueled the pandemic. A second national lockdown was imposed in early November.
A study from the University of Warwick in 2021 found it had a “significant causal impact” on the increase in Covid cases, although these findings have been questioned in the wider science community.
“It’s very difficult to see how it wouldn’t have had an effect on transmission,” Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser in the pandemic, told the inquiry last month. “That would have been the advice that was given, had we been asked beforehand.”
Sunak told the probe he didn’t believe Eat Out to Help Out was a risk, and that his primary concern was protecting “millions of jobs” for vulnerable people working in the hospitality sector.
The question of whether Sunak as chancellor prioritized the economy over public health is one of the key issues facing the inquiry. Sunak said Johnson’s government had failed in early 2020 to set out the broader implications of lockdowns for the economy, education and mental health.
He dismissed accusations that the Treasury was a “pro-death squad” by some officials including, according to previous testimony, by then prime minister Boris Johnson. “I do not think it is a fair characterization,” Sunak said.
The prime minister also told the inquiry the government didn’t level with the public about the trade-offs involved in lockdowns early in the pandemic.
The government’s communications strategy “wanted to simplify things, because we were dealing with something that was unprecedented, we didn’t know how people would respond, behave, comply,” Sunak told the inquiry. But it came “at the cost of not having from the beginning a broader conversation about the other impacts on other walks of life,” he said.
Sunak was pressed on whether he was aware government scientists were ringing “alarm bells” about the pace of easing lockdown restrictions in June 2020, and their concern that plans supported by Sunak’s Treasury were at the “riskier end of the spectrum.”
The premier said he couldn’t “precisely remember” their warnings and ministers were “taking into account a whole range of considerations.” He said he had regular talks with Johnson and never felt he lacked the opportunity to express his view. “I saw the prime minister probably more than I saw my own wife for this period of time,” Sunak said.
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