Rishi Sunak is facing a barrage of criticism in the run-up to the official Covid-19 inquiry as a leading scientist attacks his “spectacularly stupid” Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which is believed to have caused a sudden rise in cases of the virus.
The prime minister’s role as chancellor during the pandemic is under increasing scrutiny – as is that of his predecessor at No 10, Boris Johnson – in an escalating Covid blame game at Westminster as Lady Hallett prepares to open her investigation into the government’s pandemic response later this month.
The president of the British Medical Association, Prof Martin McKee, also criticises the “dysfunctional” way in which the government, including the Treasury under Sunak, overlooked scientific advice throughout the pandemic.
Last Thursday the Cabinet Office launched an unprecedented attempt in the high court to avoid handing over Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp message and diaries to the inquiry.
The action is believed to have been driven by a belief that if Johnson’s material were submitted in full, then the Cabinet Office would have to do the same in respect of messages and other information held in the phones and diaries of serving ministers, including Sunak himself.
Johnson subsequently submitted some of his messages directly to the inquiry himself, bypassing Whitehall.
This weekend, there are signs that while Johnson will be firmly in Hallett’s sights, so, too, will Sunak – particularly over the way the Treasury failed to involve scientists in decisions and the formulation of policy. Hallett has already sent questions to Johnson asking if scientific evidence and opinion was sought before Eat Out to Help Out was launched, which appears not to have been the case.
Speaking to the Observer, Prof John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who was a member of the Sage committee of advisers to ministers and who has submitted written evidence to the inquiry, said the controversial Eat Out to Help Out scheme – which gave people discounts for eating in restaurants and pubs – was never discussed with scientists.
“If we had [been consulted], I would have been clear what I thought about it,” said Edmunds. “As far as I am concerned, it was a spectacularly stupid idea and an obscene way to spend public money.”
Eat Out to Help Out was launched in August 2020. It allowed diners to claim 50% off more than 160m meals at a cost to the Treasury of about £850m. In the process, it also drove new Covid-19 infections up by between 8 and 17%, according to one study carried out a few weeks later.
In his recently published book Johnson at 10: The Inside Story, Anthony Seldon says that the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, first found about the scheme when he read a press release about it. Asked to comment on the claim on Saturday, Hancock’s spokesperson did not deny the account but said he was unable to comment before the inquiry.
A government spokesperson said the scheme had had a positive effect on the economy and jobs, and denied that there was clear evidence that it helped spread the virus.
“We designed the Eat Out to Help Out scheme to protect 2m jobs in hospitality, and statistics show that the scheme brought back 400,000 people from furlough while safely restoring consumer confidence,” the spokesperson said. “Local take-up of the scheme was not positively correlated with Covid rates in any English region or country.”
Edmunds said the Sage scientists had no real role in shaping policies across government. “We were asked questions and gave scientific answers but we didn’t know what strategy was being discussed by the government. It was written by them and we saw it the same day that the press saw it.
“They never said: ‘Here’s the strategy, what do you think of it?’ That’s not how it worked and that is why it’s always been so misleading for the government to pretend that it was following science. That’s just nonsense.”
Another critical decision set to be investigated by Hallett was made in September 2020, when the government was urged by Sage to impose a mini-lockdown to dampen rising case numbers, with both Johnson and Sunak opposing the move.
“I said then that the question was either do it now and get on top of the epidemic and keep it under control, or be forced into doing it in a few weeks’ time, by which time the epidemic will be much worse,” Edmunds said.
“There will be many more hospitalisations and deaths, and you will have to take more stringent action. Unfortunately that is exactly what happened.”
McKee said he welcomed signs that the Hallett inquiry would address whether the science was too often ignored: “It’s very encouraging that Lady Hallett is looking in detail at the role of scientific advice in decision-making across government,” he said.
“It has long been clear from accounts by those involved – and the BMA’s own report into the Covid response – that this was dysfunctional, and this was an important factor in the UK’s poor response.
“Unfortunately, this weakness has been noted in inquiries going back many years … and the failure to fix it suggests a deeper problem with the machinery of government.”
The former Labour lord chancellor Lord Falconer said it was clear that the Sunak government was trying to discredit the inquiry by making out it was over-reaching its remit. “They are trying to make out it is part of the woke, remain establishment,” he said.
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