Sunak 'thought it was OK to just let people die', Covid inquiry hears

Sir Patrick Vallance, the former chief scientific adviser, has been giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks reports

Words by Lewis Denison, Westminster Producer

Rishi Sunak "thought it was OK to just let people die" instead of imposing an economy-crippling second lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, the UK Covid-19 inquiry has heard.

It was also suggested the then-chancellor did not consult scientists on his controversial Eat Out to Help scheme despite the risks being "obvious" to anyone involved.

Private diaries - written as a "brain dump" by the government's former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance as a way to protect his mental health - have shone a light on the now-prime minister's attitude during the pandemic.

Number 10 said Mr Sunak was due to give evidence to the inquiry soon and would not comment on anything claimed during Sir Patrick's testimony.

Rishi Sunak 'thought it was OK to just let people die'

An entry in Sir Patrick's diaries, written in October 2020 as ministers were discussing whether to impose a second lockdown, revealed Chancellor Sunak, as he was then known, and his boss Boris Johnson had been resisting closing the economy.

It showed that Dominic Cummings (referred to in the diary as DC), Mr Johnson's former chief adviser, thought Mr Sunak was comfortable with keeping the economy open, even if it led to further fatalities.

Detailing how ministers were disagreeing with advisers, Sir Patrick wrote about "a complete lack of leadership" from Mr Johnson, with Mr Cummings advocating for a lockdown.

“DC argued again (rightly) that a lockdown’s coming and therefore do it sooner rather than later, PM concludes, ‘Looks like we are in a really tough spot, a complete shambles. I really don’t want to do another national lockdown’.

“PM told that if he wants to go down this route of letting go, ‘you need to tell people – you need to tell them you are going to allow people to die’ […] Conclusion – beef up the tiers – consider a national lockdown – decide by when.

“DC says ‘Rishi thinks just let people die and that’s okay’.

“This all feels like a complete lack of leadership.”

Downing Street declined to confirm whether or not the prime minister made the controversial comment when asked in a briefing for a journalists on Monday afternoon.

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have been implicated in Sir Patrick Vallance's evidence to the Covid inquiry. Credit: No10

“The prime minister is due to give evidence before the inquiry at the time of their choosing. That’s when he’ll set out his position," said Mr Sunak's official spokesman.

The inquiry on Monday also heard how Mr Sunak was not “terribly pleased” with the prospect of imposing a lockdown in London during the early stages of the pandemic.

Asked why the chancellor was unhappy about the idea of another lockdown, Sir Patrick said: “Well, quite rightly, he’s concerned about the economy and London is very much the engine of the economy.”

Sunak did not consult scientists before announcing Eat Out to Help Out scheme

It was also revealed at the inquiry that neither Sir Patrick nor his scientific colleagues were consulted about a policy which encouraged people to defy previous public health advice by eating out at restaurants.

Sir Patrick said he only learned about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme - which was blamed for boosting the spread of coronavirus - at the same time as the public.

Mr Sunak has said in his written submission to the inquiry that he does not recall any pushback on the policy, but Sir Patrick said his advice would have been "very clear" had he been asked.

Giving evidence to the probe, Sir Patrick said: “We didn’t see it before it was announced and I think others in the Cabinet Office also said they didn’t see it before it was formulated as policy. So we weren’t involved in the run up to it.”

He added: “I think it would have been very obvious to anyone that this inevitably would cause an increase in transmission risk, and I think that would have been known by ministers.”

When asked about Mr Sunak’s understanding of the risks, Sir Patrick said: “If he was in the meetings, I can’t recall which meetings he was in. But I’d be very surprised if any minister didn’t understand that these openings carried risk.”

The scientist said it is "quite likely" the policy had an effect on virus transmission and that it is "very difficult to see" how it would not have increased infections.

“I think our advice would have been very clear on that (Eat Out to Help Out)," he added.

No 10 would not be drawn on whether the PM had consulted scientists on the transmission risk of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme before announcing it.

A Downing Street official said a number of people will be setting out their views of the period, but “rather than respond to each one in piecemeal, it’s right that it is looked at alongside other evidence”.

It has previously been revealed at the inquiry how Mr Sunak was referred to as "Dr Death" for introducing the policy, by the government's current chief scientific adviser Dame Angela McLean.

Dame Angela, who will give evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday and likely be asked about the remark, made it in a WhatsApp group involving members of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies which was shown as evidence in October.

The Eat Out to Help Out policy has also been labelled confusing by the British Medical Association during the inquiry.

It said: “The Eat Out to Help Out initiative encouraged social mixing and confused public health messaging during 2020, suggesting that it was safe for people to socialise before vaccines were available and when the risks of Covid-19 remained high."

Sunak wanted to 'handle the scientists not the virus'

Mr Sunak's attitude toward scientific advisers during the pandemic was further exposed at the inquiry, as Sir Patrick recalled a moment the now-PM was overheard in a meeting.

A diary entry made by Sir Patrick on July 2, 2020 and shown to the Covid-19 inquiry read: “In the economics meeting earlier today they didn’t realise CMO (chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty) was there and CX (then-chancellor Rishi Sunak) said ‘It is all about handling the scientists, not handling the virus’.

“They then got flustered when the CMO chipped in later and they realised he had been there all along. PM blustered and waffled for five mins to cover his embarrassment.”

Other notes written by the former chief scientific adviser in June 2020 claimed ministers “hadn’t really read or taken the time to understand the science advice” when they wanted to get rid of the two-metre social-distancing rule.

Boris Johnson was 'bamboozled' by science and ministers were 'meek as mice'

The inquiry was also told how difficult it was for scientists to get then-Prime Minister Johnson to understand their advice.

Sir Patrick also described Cabinet ministers as “meek as mice” and accused them of an “abrogation of responsibility” for not imposing recommended restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 in the autumn of 2020.

One diary entry from May 4, 2020, said: “Late afternoon meeting with the PM on schools. My God, this is complicated. Models will not provide the answer. PM is clearly bamboozled."

Others, also written in May, 2020, said: “PM asking whether we’ve overdone it on the lethality of this disease. He swings between optimism, pessimism, and then this.

“PM still confused on different types of test. He holds us in his head for a session and then it goes.”

He did, however, defend the ex-prime minister when giving evidence on Monday insisting the issue of helping politicians understand the data was not unique to the UK.

"I do not think that there was necessarily a unique inability to grasp some of these concepts with the prime minister at the time, but it was hard work sometimes to try and make sure that he had understood what a particular graph or piece of data was saying,” he said.

Sir Patrick explained how he "would not have tried to get across too many scientific concepts" when speaking to Mr Johnson at meetings.

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