(Bloomberg) -- The photo captures Rishi Sunak at the height of his popularity during the pandemic: after months of punishing lockdown, Britain’s then finance minister grins as he carries two katsu curries to waiting diners. In that restaurant in July 2020, it’s unlikely anyone needed his “Rishi” name tag.
It was the launch of his now infamous Eat Out to Help Out program, a U-turn on strict rules keeping people at home to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in favor of encouraging a shell-shocked nation to go out and eat state-subsidized meals.
Coupled with his unprecedented furlough program, which paid firms to cover wages for staff not working in lockdown, the idea catapulted Sunak — then just months into his job as Chancellor of the Exchequer — to become the second-most recognized politician in Britain after Boris Johnson. Plucked from obscurity by the former premier, “Dishy Rishi” was already seen as his likely successor.
Behind the scenes, though, a different view of Sunak took hold in government as Covid infections rose again later that year. Angela McLean, now the UK’s chief scientific adviser, branded him “Dr. Death the chancellor.” Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock accused Sunak of prioritizing the economy over public health, while scientific advisers said he kept them in the dark over Eat Out to Help Out. Even Johnson referred to Sunak’s Treasury as the “pro-death squad.”
That criticism will be presented as evidence to Sunak when he testifies at the official Covid-19 inquiry Monday, an all-day session to examine his judgment at a critical point in British history. It’s a dangerous moment at the wrong time for Sunak, who faces hours on the stand with a Conservative Party battle over his plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda raging in the background.
But while the schism between Tory MPs poses the immediate threat to the prime minister, his earlier signature policy in the first summer of the pandemic could do him lasting damage with voters. Trailing the opposition Labour Party by about 20 points ahead of an election expected next year, Sunak will be thrust by the televised inquiry back into the chaos of the Johnson era and the UK’s 230,000 Covid deaths — an image Sunak has gone to great lengths to avoid.
The premier has declined to comment on accusations he prioritized the economy over public health in the pandemic, pending his testimony to the inquiry.
“The key question is about his judgment and whether he sought the advice and listened to the advice that he should have,” said Emma Norris, deputy director at the Institute for Government think tank.
Eat Out to Help Out features prominently in any debate about that first year of the pandemic, coming between lockdowns and before the vaccine rollout. Launched by Sunak in July, the campaign ran through August and let people claim 50% off food and drink up to £10 per person, a boost to the hospitality industry that cost the Treasury £850 million ($1.1 billion).
Sunak’s name was everywhere, from Twitter posts to restaurant stickers. It was “a gamble, a display of saying we can go back to normal,” said Vicky Pryce, chief economic adviser at the Centre for Economics and Business Research. “Rishi Sunak was seen I think by the population generally as the one person who was out there helping, so I think that helped him hugely later.”
As time has gone on, though, the public perception of Eat Out to Help Out has changed and increased the political jeopardy for the plan’s designer.
Evidence presented to the inquiry shows government scientists were alarmed from the start, and as Covid cases surged in autumn 2020, speculation about a link with the summer restaurant mingling became common. But it was a study published a year later by Thiemo Fetzer, a University of Warwick economist, which put the theory on an academic footing.
Fetzer found Eat Out to Help Out had a “significant causal impact” on the increase in Covid cases, and while his findings have been questioned in the wider science community, the study has put Sunak and others on the back foot.
During an at times heated interrogation by Hugo Keith, the lead lawyer for the inquiry who is rapidly gaining his own public profile, Johnson said Thursday he hadn’t seen “conclusive” evidence that Eat Out to Help Out had spread Covid and that he hadn’t considered it a “gamble.”
Still, senior government scientists condemned the program to the inquiry, and significantly, denied Sunak’s written claim that they were consulted.
“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. “That would have been the advice that was given, had we been asked beforehand.” Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s former deputy chief medical officer, said he heard about it on television. “It didn’t feel sensible to me,” he said.
Senior government officials, too, were kept out of the loop. Simon Ridley, then head of the Covid-19 task force, agreed with Keith that he had been “effectively completely blindsided” by Sunak’s Treasury.
Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, in an interview with Sky News’ Trevor Phillips on Sunday, pointed out there was a month between when the scheme was first announced and when it took effect.
“In the period post-announcement and pre-implementation it was not the case, that there was a public critique of it,” he said. “It was an effective way of ensuring the hospitality industry was supported during a very difficult period. And it was entirely within the broad outlines of rules about social mixing available at the time.”
Hancock, who has faced intense criticism over decisions in the pandemic, privately described Sunak’s program as “eat out to help the virus get about” and accused Sunak of playing politics by showing “ankle to the hard right.”
Hancock was alluding to how the pandemic is so politicized in the UK. During the Tory leadership campaign he lost in the summer of 2022, Sunak leaned into the lockdown-skeptic views common on the political right. “We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did,” he told the Spectator magazine.
It’s this tension between health and the economy that the inquiry will focus on. Sunak has repeatedly said he was focused on protecting livelihoods.
But the Covid inquiry audience is very different to members of Sunak’s Conservative Party. The probe has heard how Johnson’s top team dithered in taking crucial decisions, blaming each other when things went wrong. The government also broke its own lockdown rules by holding gatherings in Downing Street, leading to multiple police fines — including one for Sunak.
The inquiry has exposed how power is “concentrated in too few hands who were plainly inadequate,” said former Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable.
The current prime minister will likely seek to distance himself from his old boss. Yet the political danger is that Sunak’s prioritizing of the economy ties him inextricably to Johnson, who was skeptical about the risk and even at the height of the pandemic, questioned the health impact of the virus — despite the fact that he was hospitalized himself.
This week, Johnson apologized after evidence revealed he described so-called long Covid — the often debilitating health problems estimated to afflict 10% or more of people who have had Covid-19 — as “bollocks.” That was far from the lewdest language that has come out in the inquiry, but it underscored the risk facing Sunak of voters linking him once again to that era.
Johnson’s Tories had won the 2019 general election just two months before the pandemic hit, following prolonged wrangling over Brexit. “It was not a government that was picked on the basis of good administrators,” said former Tory minister David Gauke. “That came to the fore.”
--With assistance from Anna Shiryaevskaya.
(Adds quote from Michael Gove defending program in 18th paragraph)
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
BNN Bloomberg Picks
Canada's 'student trafficking' industry is backfiring on Trudeau
Do you want AI with that? Fast food chains go digital with dynamic pricing, bots
Canada tax changes to be aware of in 2024
Group RRSP use rising as retirement savings burden 'largely on employees': experts
45 cents short, $96 in fees: Court approves TD insufficient fund fees settlement
Immigration surge fuels male population boom in Canada