Sunak defends Johnson in testimony to Covid inquiry

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Rishi Sunak defended former prime minister Boris Johnson and his handling of the pandemic on Monday as the serving premier gave evidence to the official Covid-19 inquiry for the first time.

Revelations from the inquiry in recent weeks have laid bare the chaos in Johnson’s government as it faced the pandemic, including testimony of a “toxic” culture and Johnson changing his mind frequently on policy decisions.

Sunak, who was chancellor under Johnson, told the inquiry that he had not been aware of officials criticising the former prime minister for dithering. He said an “iterative” decision-making process was “not necessarily a bad thing”.

He also contested views expressed by other witnesses that cabinet members were excluded from decision making at crucial junctures, saying it was “not his strong recollection”.

One of the most serious questions facing Sunak as he gives evidence is the suggestion that he argued against the imposition of lockdown measures when the virus first hit in early 2020, and again during a second wave of infections in the autumn that year.

Sunak said he consistently urged Johnson to consider in “totality” the impact Covid restrictions would have on the most vulnerable throughout the pandemic. 

“It wasn’t — I didn’t ever describe it as — a clash just between public health and economics,” he told the inquiry on Monday. “I think that’s to think about it in far too narrow a way.

“As many people have alluded to, and I did at the time, there were a range of impacts, many of them socio-economic, the impact on children’s education, on mental health, on the issue in the criminal justice system, as well as the pure economic impact. It was important that policymakers considered the totality of those.”

Sunak opened his evidence to the inquiry by saying he was “deeply sorry” to people who lost loved ones during the pandemic, and to all those who “suffered” as a result of actions the government took.

He said he had thought a lot about the policies the government enacted during the crisis and was giving evidence to the inquiry in the “spirit of constructive candour”.

He said one of his “general reflections” was that early on during the pandemic there was not access to high-quality and timely data “in all areas”, though he said that improved over time.

The inquiry, which is due to run until the summer of 2026, is also set to hear evidence on Monday from Sunak about his flagship Eat Out to Help Out discount scheme.

The scheme sought to boost the hospitality industry by subsidising consumers who dined out after months of staying away from restaurants and pubs. It has been partly blamed for triggering a new wave of the virus.

Sunak places an Eat Out to Help Out scheme sticker in the window of a business in Scotland in 2020 © Jeff J Mitchell/PA

The inquiry has heard how senior scientific advisers were not consulted before the Treasury launched the policy in August 2020, leading some in government to privately refer to the then-chancellor as “Dr Death”.

Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer since 2019, privately characterised Sunak’s programme as “Eat Out to Help Out the Virus”, the inquiry has heard.

The inquiry has struggled to obtain a number of WhatsApp messages from key participants. Speaking on Monday, Sunak said he had changed his phone multiple times and the messages from his phone during the pandemic “hadn’t come across”.

He noted that he was “not a prolific user of WhatsApp in the first instance”, and added that anything of significance that was sent via the social media app would have been recorded by civil servants.

Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel for the inquiry, said that many of Sunak’s exchanges had been obtained from other people’s devices.

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