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Rishi Sunak Tells Covid Inquiry 'Eat Out To Help Out' Was The "Right Thing To Do"

Prime Minister and former chancellor Rishi Sunak gave evidence to the Covid Inquiry on Monday (UK Covid Inquiry)

6 min read

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has defended his own decision-making as chancellor during the Covid-19 pandemic, and told the Covid Inquiry that the Eat Out To Help Scheme was the "right thing to do".

Eat Out To Help Out was one of the most controversial decisions taken by the UK government during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, introduced in the summer to encourage businesses to reopen and for customers to return to hospitality venues.

Former government scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told the Inquiry last month that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was "highly likely" to have increased Covid deaths in the UK and that easing indoor hospitality restrictions was at the “top end of the risk boundary”.

However, Sunak has defended the scheme, telling the Covid Inquiry on Monday that he believed it was the right course of action and that even at the time, he had not deemed it to be a "risk" and insisted it was "always designed to be temporary".

“Why would I raise it as a risk when I didn’t believe that it was? Because it was designed in the context of a safe reopening," he said.

“The onus is surely on the people who now believe that it was a risk to have raised it at the time, when something could have been done about it, if they felt strongly."

He claimed that "hundreds of pages of guidance" had deemed it safe to reopen the hospitality sector, and reopening was a precedent set by other countries and a move that was recommended by think tanks. The prime minister stated that as chancellor at the time, his priority was to consider effects on the labour market.

“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."

Boris Johnson, who was prime minister at the time, told the Inquiry last week he had also not deemed the scheme to be a “particular gamble” and it had not been presented to him as such. He had been questioned on whether it had been properly discussed with scientific advisers, to which Johnson said he would have been "perplexed" if it had somehow got past advisers.

However, previous evidence showed that Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty had referred to it as 'Eat out to help out the virus', suggesting he disapproved of the policy.

On Monday, Sunak was also questioned on what his position was in terms of the trade-off between limiting the spread of the virus and lifting the negative impacts of lockdowns and other restrictive measures. 

Previous evidence to the Inquiry suggested that Sunak had been in favour of less restrictive measures in order to prevent negative effects on the economy. Vallance wrote in his notebooks: "DC [Dominic Cummings] says 'Rishi thinks just let people die and that's OK." Sunak denies having said this. 

Sunak told the Inquiry that he did not have one position, but that he and the wider government changed their position according to scientific advice at the time. He said that it had been his “constitutional responsibility” to ensure then-prime minister Johnson had the best advice and insights into the economic impact of Covid measures. 

“We are a consumption-driven economy and therefore people’s jobs and livelihoods and our ability to pay for public services is a function of consumption being strong,” he said.

Asked why retail outlets were permitted to reopen before secondary schools in summer 2020, Sunak said that retail jobs had a “broader social purpose” as people on lower incomes were employed in this sector. 

The inquiry lawyer also asked about the introduction of the tier system, which applied different levels of restrictions to different regions of England in autumn 2020. Sunak responded that there was a "general consensus" that this approach was the right one, despite criticisms from scientists who said it was unlikely to be effective.

Regional leaders, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, had also criticised the UK government in previous evidence sessions of keeping them "in the dark", particularly in the early months of the pandemic.

The former chancellor defended former prime minister Boris Johnson, who he said he saw “more than I saw my own wife” during the pandemic. 

Johnson has been criticised in numerous evidence sessions by politicians and former advisers for unclear decision-making and leadership during the government’s response to Covid-19.

However, Johnson told the Inquiry last week that he had a preference for an adversarial atmosphere "with strong characters giving me advice", but that he viewed this as a positive characteristic of government. 

Sunak appeared to mirror Johnson’s line that debate in government was a “good thing”.

“These were incredibly big decisions,” the prime minister said, adding that the fact there was debate was “unsurprising” and “good” because it should have warranted debate. 

He defended the process of decision-making taken by Johnson, describing how he would "go over the arguments" and "test out different points of view" that might have led Johnson to sometimes change his mind. 

"I don't think there's anything wrong with that," Sunak said.

“The scientific advice changed and the government obviously changed with it.”

Sunak was also asked about his views on the functioning of No10, after numerous witnesses had told the Inquiry about the “toxic” atmosphere at the time, as well as many messages being shown to the Inquiry that included strong language and insults levelled at individuals.

However, Sunak said his interactions with No10 and the Cabinet Office "felt fine to me" and said that he did not feel “shut out" as a Cabinet minister. 

“Lots of people were around the table, that was my recollection,” he said.

Hugo Keith KC, the lawyer questioning Sunak, started on Monday by asking Sunak why the Inquiry was unable to see Sunak’s personal Whatsapp messages from the time of the pandemic. Sunak claimed that he had switched phones “multiple times” since and that messages had not transferred across to his new device. 

The prime minister started his evidence session by saying he was “deeply sorry” to bereaved families and those who suffered as a result of lockdown measures.

“I’ve thought about this a lot over the last couple of years,” he said, claiming he was “looking forward” to giving evidence as it was important to learn the lessons for the future.

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