Covid Inquiry: 'Deeply sorry' Rishi Sunak says Eat Out To Help Out scheme saved jobs

Rishi Sunak kicked off his appearance at the Covid-19 Inquiry by saying 'how deeply sorry' he is for the suffering of victims of the pandemic, as Political Editor Robert Peston reports

Rishi Sunak said how "deeply sorry" he is to "those who lost loved ones" during the coronavirus pandemic, while insisting his Eat Out To Help Out scheme saved hospitality jobs.

Giving evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry on Monday, the prime minister robustly defended claims that his controversial restaurant discount plan was never discussed with health chiefs outside Number 10 and put lives at risk.

He insisted it was a "micro plan" that was part of a much bigger opening-up of society, and anyone with concerns had "ample opportunity" to raise them before the scheme kicked off.

Mr Sunak, who served as chancellor during the pandemic, appeared as his premiership comes under increasingly intense pressure over his struggling Rwanda legislation.

The key moments from Rishi Sunak

  • The PM said 'how deeply sorry' he is for the suffering endured by pandemic victims

  • On the Inquiry not having access to any of his WhatsApp messages, Mr Sunak said he has changed his phone 'multiple times' and 'the messages have not come across'

  • Mr Sunak saw the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson more than his wife during the early stages of the outbreak, he told the Inquiry

  • He said it was his 'constitutional responsibility' as chancellor to warn the PM of the economic impacts of pandemic decisions

  • Mr Sunak denied that Mr Johnson's Downing Street administration was chaotic

  • He said the record-high tax burden 'which we’re grappling with today' is a consequence of lockdown borrowing

  • Despite claims by top scientists that they weren't consulted by his Eat Out To Help Out scheme, Mr Sunak said they had 'ample opportunity' to raise their concerns

  • His restaurant discount plan helped protect hospitality workers from the 'devastating consequences' of job losses, he argued to the Inquiry

  • He denied that anyone in government expressed the sentiment that people requiring free school meals for their children during the pandemic were 'freeloaders'

ITV News' Political Editor Robert Peston on Rishi Sunak's appearance before the Covid-19 Inquiry as the PM faces a perilous week in Westminster

Beginning his evidence session on Monday, Mr Sunak, like previous witnesses before the Inquiry, issued an apology to victims of the pandemic.

"I just wanted to start by saying how deeply sorry I am to all of those who lost loved ones, family members, through the pandemic, and also all those who suffered in various different ways throughout the pandemic and as a result of the actions that were taken", Mr Sunak said. "I’ve thought a lot about this over the past couple of years. "It is important that we learn the lessons so that we can be better prepared in the future. "It is in that spirit and with enormous respect for all of those who are affected that I’m here today. "I look forward to giving evidence in the spirit of constructive candour to help the inquiry with its deliberations."

Giving two days of evidence last week, former PM Boris Johnson similarly expressed "how sorry" he is for the "loss and the suffering" of Covid victims.

'He made an economic decision... and as a direct result of that many, many thousands of people died', says Covid bereaved Amanda Jane Pape

The first issue raised by counsel inquiry Hugo Keith KC was why they were not able to get access to WhatsApp messages on Mr Sunak's phone from his time running the Treasury during the pandemic.

So far the Inquiry has seen a number of explosive exchanges between government officials which have come under intense criticism for their suggestion that government business during the outbreak was carried out via WhatsApp.

Mr Keith said: "Your phone, you said, doesn’t retain, and nor do you have access to, text messages at all relating to the period of the crisis. “In addition, you said although on occasion you use WhatsApp to communicate around meetings and logistics and so on, you generally were only party to WhatsApp groups that were set up to deal with individual circumstances such as arrangements for calls, meetings and so on and so forth. You don’t now have access to any of the WhatsApps that you did send during the time of the crisis, do you?” Mr Sunak replied: “No, I don’t, I’ve changed my phone multiple times over the past few years and, as that has happened, the messages have not come across. “As you said, I’m not a prolific user of WhatsApp in the first instance – primarily communication with my private office and obviously anything that was of significance through those conversations or exchanges would have been recorded officially by my civil servants as one would expect.”

Rishi Sunak tells the Covid-19 Inquiry it was his 'constitutional responsibility' to ensure then prime minister Boris Johnson knew about the economic dangers of his decisions

One of the most controversial claims facing Mr Sunak is that his Eat Out to Help Out scheme fuelled the spread of coronavirus and ignored scientific advice.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, is said to have privately referred to the scheme to boost the restaurant industry as “eat out to help out the virus”.

Sir Patrick Vallance, who was chief scientific adviser, previously told the Inquiry that he and Sir Chris could not recall being consulted in advance about the scheme that cost hundreds of millions of pounds.

Giving evidence, Sir Patrick said the scheme was “highly likely” to have fuelled deaths.

But Mr Sunak said he did not recall being warned about how risky the government's opening-up measures were and insisted his restaurant incentive was a "micro policy" that was part of a bigger programme of opening up.

"This was a micro policy to make sure that that capacity which the scientists had already said was part of an overall package which could be safely delivered, was actually used. And it was done very much in that context," Mr Sunak told the Inquiry.

But Amanda Jane Pape, whose husband Robert died of coronavirus after visiting a restaurant taking part in the scheme, said she wanted an apology from Mr Sunak at the Inquiry.

"What I wanted him to admit is that he made a mistake, he made an economic decision, which is all I can see Eat Out To Help Out being, and that as a direct result of that, many many thousands of people died.

"One of the things I still feel terrible guilty about is the possibility that we passed that onto somebody else," she added.

Amanda and her husband travelled from Manchester to Birmingham when the scheme was implemented - which was within the rules at the time - and told ITV News she still feels guilty that the couple could have infected others with the virus when they returned.

'There was almost a month between announcement and commencement', the PM says, as he defends himself against claims he didn't consult anyone about Eat Out To Help Out

Mr Sunak also denied accusations by top scientists that they weren't able to raise their concerns about the scheme because they didn't know about it until it was publicly announced in July 2020, weeks before it was implemented in August.

"They had ample opportunity to raise those concerns between the announcement of the scheme and its implementation," Mr Sunak said.

"None of them chose to do so in any fora that they were in."

The plan formed part of Mr Sunak’s summer economic update on July 8 2020, and provided 50% off the cost of food and/or non-alcoholic drinks.

Former deputy chief medical officer Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam said the scheme “didn’t feel sensible” because it was encouraging exactly what officials had been trying to stop in previous months.

One of Sir Patrick’s diary entries recorded Dominic Cummings, who was Boris Johnson’s chief adviser in Downing Street at the time, saying Mr Sunak “thinks just let people die and that’s OK”.

Lawyers representing bereaved families from the four UK nations will also question Mr Sunak, as will long Covid groups and the Trades Union Congress.

The union’s assistant general secretary Kate Bell said: “The Prime Minister must come clean about why these decisions were taken – especially when senior government advisers were warning that people couldn’t afford to stay home when sick.

“The failure to provide proper financial support was an act of self-sabotage that left millions brutally exposed to the pandemic.”

Rishi Sunak denies saying 'good working people pay for their children to eat' in a meeting about free school meals during the pandemic

Also at the Inquiry on Monday, Rishi Sunak said it was unfair to describe the Treasury under his leadership during the pandemic as a "pro-death squad".

The former chancellor was asked by Hugo Keith KC whether he was aware of the description used by some Number 10 officials to refer to the department being opposed to the toughest restrictions on the public. "I wasn’t and I do not think it is a fair characterisation on the incredibly hardworking people that I was lucky to be supported by at the Treasury," the PM insisted.

He also denied that anyone in government suggested that people needing free school meals during the pandemic were "freeloaders".

He added that the holiday activity and food programme at the time was "one of the most generous and comprehensive support packages put in place anywhere in the world, that disproportionately did benefit the most vulnerable". He told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry: "And actually, poverty actually fell during this period as a result. But it’s clear that that’s not sustainable forever. "As the pandemic ended, and we returned to more normal life, it’s reasonable that we returned to a more normal state. "But actually, when it came to the situation of free school meals, even though the pandemic support ended, more permanent, extra support was put in place to the provision of meals. "And indeed activities today is greater and more generously funded than it was before the pandemic as a result of changes that were made through the holiday activity and food programme."

Rishi Sunak was giving evidence to the Inquiry as part of its second module, which is looking at core decision-making and governance.

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