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Treasury Had "No Planning" For Lockdowns As Pandemic Response

George Osbourne appeared in front of the Covid Inquiry on Tuesday (Covid Inquiry)

4 min read

Former chancellor George Osborne has told the Covid Inquiry that there was “no planning” in the Treasury for lockdowns as a response to a possible future pandemic.

Osborne, who was chancellor between 2010 and 2016, has given evidence to the Covid Inquiry as part of the investigation into the government response to Covid-19, in particular looking at the Treasury’s role in the country’s preparation for a pandemic.

Former prime minister David Cameron gave evidence on Monday and former minister Oliver Letwin gave evidence before Osborne on Tuesday. 

Cameron admitted that it had been a "mistake" for government not to have prepared for a range of different types of pandemics, and instead placing a disproportionate focus on influenza.

Describing the Treasury’s role as contributing to “cross-government preparations for civil emergencies” by maintaining control over public spending, Osborne today admitted that “no planning” took place for lockdowns as “no-one said” to the department that there was a risk of pandemics.

“The truth is we didn't plan for a lockdown, no Treasury did before me or after me, no treasuries in the rest of the Western world,” the former chancellor said. 

“There was no planning done by the UK Treasury for asking the entire population to stay at home for months and months on end, essentially depriving large sectors of the economy like hospitality of all their customers for months and months to come.”

“No-one said to us that there could be a pandemic or health pandemic that is not influenza, for which the likely response is that you're going to have to shut down the economy for months and months on end.

“That was not elevated to us as a health risk.”

He said the Treasury would not have tried to “second guess” health experts and while he was not “disparaging” those officials, the issue was not highlighted to the Treasury as something that needed to be prepared for. 

Cameron was keen to emphasise the Treasury's position in having to balance different demands from different demands.

“You’ve got to balance all of these competing demands for different services wanting more money," he said.

"Plus constraints on a country of borrowing the money in international markets, plus the constraints on the general population just willy-nilly paying more tax. The taxpayer is also a core participant in that sense to this inquiry.”

Asked whether he thinks the Treasury should have had a “playbook” of strategies for if a pandemic occurred, Osborne replied: “With hindsight, yes.”

The former Conservative MP said the Treasury could have developed a furlough scheme in advance of a possible pandemic, but that given the “fairly easy and rapid” rollout of the furlough scheme in 2020 despite no previous planning, he thinks that was not therefore necessary. 

“Planning could have been done for a furlough scheme in advance,” he said. 

“I'm not clear, observing it as at that point, just a citizen, that that would have made a better furlough scheme than the one we actually got.”

Osborne questioned whether, even if health officials had highlighted the risk of a pandemic to the Treasury at an earlier date, lockdown would have been considered as a “plausible” response. 

“In 2011, 2012, or 2013, if someone had come to us and said: ‘Right, there's going to be a Coronavirus pandemic and we're going to ask the whole population to stay indoors for three months’, I wonder whether anyone would have thought that was a plausible plan,” he continued. 

“It turned out to be one after other parts of the world started doing it.”

He went on to suggest that the idea of lockdowns had come from China.

Similarly to Cameron on the previous day, Osborne was also asked about how his department had prepared the UK’s economic resilience for such a crisis. 

Arguing that “poor” countries had not been able to afford lockdowns or provide loans for businesses to stay in operation, Osborne said it was essential for the UK economy to have “flexibility to deal with whatever the world's going to throw”. 

He “completely rejected” the accusation that austerity policies had depleted health and social care in the years leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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