Rishi Sunak tells Covid inquiry he is ‘deeply sorry’ over pandemic deaths

Rishi Sunak tells Covid inquiry he is ‘deeply sorry’ over pandemic deaths

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Monday told the British Covid inquiry that he was ‘deeply sorry’ as he spoke to all those who lost loves ones and suffered during the pandemic.

As Chancellor during the outbreak, Mr Sunak played a key role by launching huge loans to prop up businesses and a summer Eat Out to Help Out scheme that scientific advisers fear helped to propel a mini-spike in the infection rate.

“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.

The prime minister was asked whether he believed scientists were handed too much power and if insufficient consideration was given to the impact of lockdowns.

Messages have revealed government scientists referred to him as “Dr Death, the Chancellor” over concerns about his push to keep economic activity going while leading the Treasury during the pandemic.

Questioning by lead counsel Hugo Keith KC on Monday is only one of the pressures on Mr Sunak at the start of the week, as he faces a crunch vote on his Rwanda legislation on Tuesday.

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

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

It was put to Mr Sunak that it had been recorded in an email that the package of measures, including reopening hospitality and the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, was at the “riskier end of the spectrum” and the scientists were warning the government needed to be “very careful”.

“That’s just not my recollection,” he said. “I didn’t read these emails, I rarely saw them. I would have been briefed on what I needed to know.”

Mr Sunak said the scheme was only intended to be temporary in a bid to save two million jobs and encourage people to go out in a “safe way”.

“This was a very reasonable, sensible policy intervention to help safeguard those jobs in that safe reopening,” he said. “That was my view. I didn’t believe that it was a risk. I believe it was the right thing to do.”

He said it was unfair to describe the Treasury under his leadership during the pandemic as a “pro-death squad”.

“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,” he said.

Mr Sunak told the inquiry there was no evidence the scheme had led to more infections in the winter.

He pointed out that other countries suffered a similar wave and that experts had said another bout was inevitable.

He also claimed that scientific advisers had not raised concerns at the time and that the scheme had secured millions of hospitality jobs hit by weeks of Covid lockdowns and restriction.

Giving evidence to Baroness Hallett’s inquiry, Sir Patrick said the scheme was “highly likely” to have caused deaths.

Mr Gove argued the policy was announced a month before it was introduced and during this time it was “not the case that there was a public critique”.

Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme – in pictures

Then-chancellor Rishi Sunak places an Eat Out to Help Out sticker in the window of a business during a visit to Scotland in August 2020. PA

“It was an effective way of ensuring that the hospitality industry was supported through a very difficult period and it was entirely within the broad outlines of rules about social mixing that prevailed at the time,” he told Sky’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips programme.

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

Former deputy chief medical officer Prof 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”.

It is understood the inquiry has shared with its core participants an interview Mr Sunak did with the Spectator magazine in August last year.

In it, Mr Sunak claimed he “wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off” between the economic and social impacts of lockdowns and their benefits to suppressing the virus.

On the “problem” of handing power to scientists, he said: “If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed.”

Bereaved campaigners outside the Covid inquiry at Dorland House, West London, where British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is giving evidence. AP

Mr Sunak may also face questions over his WhatsApp messages, or lack of them.

He has reportedly told the inquiry that “having changed my phone a number of times over the last three years” he no longer has access to messages exchanged at the time in question.

Lawyers representing bereaved families 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.”

Updated: December 11, 2023, 4:52 PM


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