(Bloomberg) -- The UK’s chief scientific adviser in the pandemic said he was not aware of Rishi Sunak’s “Eat Out to Help Out” plan to encourage Britons back into restaurants before it was rolled out, testimony that appears to contradict the prime minister’s own written evidence to the official Covid-19 inquiry.
“Eat Out to Help Out — we didn’t know about until it was announced,” Patrick Vallance, who stepped down in April, told the inquiry on Monday. “It’s very difficult to see how that wouldn’t have had an effect on transmission and that would have been the advice that was given had we been asked beforehand.”
Read more: UK Covid Inquiry Drags Sunak Back Into Boris Johnson’s Mess
Vallance’s testimony is likely to ramp up the scrutiny on the prime minister over a signature program he launched as the UK’s Covid-era Chancellor of the Exchequer to try to get the economy firing again in the summer of 2020, as Britain emerged from its first lockdown.
Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain, declined to comment on Vallance’s testimony. He told reporters the premier plans to testify in person to the inquiry.
The inquiry was shown an extract of Sunak’s written witness statement, which read: “Throughout the period at which Eat Out to Help Out was in operation, and immediately prior to its implementation, I do not recall any concerns about the scheme being expressed during ministerial discussions, including those attended” Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.
“There’s a certain inconsistency, between your statement where you say that it would have been apparent to everyone that you opposed it, and Mr Sunak’s statement where he said you never objected to it,” the inquiry’s legal counsel Andrew O’Connor said.
Eat Out to Help Out subsidized meals in pubs and restaurants to the tune of £840 million ($1.05 billion) as part of efforts to boost the hospitality industry. It was criticized at the time by health experts for spreading the virus.
But Vallance’s testimony increases the political stakes for Sunak, who’s expected to take the stand in the coming weeks.
After he was shown Sunak’s testimony, Vallance reiterated that “we didn’t see it before it was announced,” adding that “it would have been obvious to everyone that would inevitably cause an increase in transmission risk. That would have been known by ministers.”
“I’d be very surprised if any minister didn’t understand that these openings carried risk,” Vallance continued, referring to the government’s decision to ease the first pandemic lockdown, including dining subsidy.
The inquiry is a moment of political peril for Sunak. Previous evidence has shown he was branded “Dr. Death the chancellor” by one government scientific adviser. According to the testimony of Imran Shafi, who was then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s private secretary for public services, Whitty, the medical officer, privately dubbed Sunak’s program as “Eat Out to Help Out the Virus.”
--With assistance from Joe Mayes.
(Updates with Sunak’s spokesman declines to comment in fourth paragraph.)
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