Sunak ‘knew of concerns over Covid restaurant scheme’
Peter Walker Deputy political editor
Rishi Sunak would almost certainly have known scientists were worried about his “eat out to help out” scheme during the pandemic, Sir Patrick Vallance said yesterday, directly contradicting the prime minister’s evidence to the Covid inquiry. In a potentially damaging testimony, Vallance, who was the UK government’s chief scientific adviser during the pandemic, said he would be “very surprised” if Sunak, the then chancellor, had not learned about objections to his plan to help the hospitality industry. Sunak had written to the inquiry saying he did not recall any concerns about the scheme being raised in ministerial meetings despite growing worries that it could fuel the spread of the virus. In an extract from Vallance’s contemporaneous diary, the inquiry also heard of a “shambolic” day on 25 October 2020, when the country was heading towards a second national lockdown. The entry highlights how Boris Johnson wanted to let the virus spread, while his most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings (DC), suggested Sunak, then chancellor, thought it was “okay” to let people die. The extract read: “PM meeting – begins to argue for letting it all rip. Saying yes there will be more casualties but so be it – ‘they have had a good innings’,” before later saying: “DC says ‘Rishi thinks just let people die and that’s okay’. This all feels like a complete lack of leadership.” The same entry also quoted Johnson as saying: “Most people who die have reached their time anyway.” Asked about the diary entry, Vallance told the inquiry he was recording what must have been “quite a shambolic day”. No 10 declined to say whether Sunak thought it would be OK to “just let people die” during the pandemic, saying it would be for the prime minister to set out his position during evidence before the Covid inquiry. Another entry in July 2020 provided evidence that Sunak had also sought to push back against the scientists’ advice. In one economics-based meeting, Sunak said: “It’s all about handling the scientists, not handling the virus,” according to the diary entry. Vallance said: “There were definitely periods when it was clear that the unwelcome advice we were giving was, as expected, not beloved, and that meant we had to work doubly hard to make sure that the science evidence and advice was being properly heard.” In other evidence, Vallance said Johnson had at times struggled to follow basic scientific concepts, such as the impacts of lockdown on waves of infection, and had to have them explained repeatedly. Asked about Sunak’s eating-out scheme, which gave millions of people discounts at restaurants and cafes in August 2020, Vallance said he and other scientific advisers had not been asked for their views before the Treasury launched it. “Up until that point, the message had been very clear, which is: interaction between different households and people that you weren’t living with in an enclosed environment with many others was a high-risk activity. That policy completely reversed it,” Vallance said. “It is very difficult to see how it would not have had an effect on transmission, and that would have been the advice that was given.” The inquiry also saw an extract from the written witness statement from Sunak, due to appear in person next month, in which he said that before and after the scheme’s launch he did “not recall any concerns about the scheme being expressed during ministerial discussions”.