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Rishi Sunak called his flagship £849mn Eat Out to Help Out discount scheme a “micro policy” on Monday in testimony to the Covid-19 inquiry, as he denied it drove a second wave of infections in 2020.
The UK prime minister, who was chancellor during the pandemic, said the policy of subsidising diners had been “the right thing to do” to “safeguard” millions of jobs held by “particularly vulnerable people” in the sector.
The scheme sought to boost the hospitality industry by subsidising the meals of consumers who dined out in restaurants and pubs. It has been partly blamed for triggering a new wave of the virus.
“This was a very reasonable, sensible policy intervention to help safeguard those jobs in that safe reopening,” Sunak told the inquiry. “I didn’t believe that it was a risk. I believe it was the right thing to do.”
Sunak’s appearance at the inquiry followed weeks of revelations about the chaos in Boris Johnson’s government as it faced the pandemic, including testimony of a “toxic” culture in Downing Street.
Then chancellor, Sunak made his political reputation during the pandemic by rolling out massive stimulus packages. But he has faced scrutiny at the inquiry over the Eat Out scheme and his views on lockdowns.
The inquiry, which is due to run until the summer of 2026, has heard that senior scientific advisers were not consulted before Sunak launched his hospitality policy in August 2020, leading some in government to privately refer to him 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.
Sunak told the inquiry: “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.”
“All the data, all the evidence, all the polling, all the input from those companies suggested that unless we did something, many of those jobs would have been at risk with devastating consequences for those people and their families,” he said.
Sunak also insisted that in the month between the policy being announced and implemented, there were three meetings in which scientific advisers and ministers could have raised concerns.
The “onus” should have been 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”, he said.
He also defended Johnson’s handling of the crisis despite a series of damning testimonies from others at the inquiry that have painted a picture of Johnson frequently changing his mind on key policy decisions.
Sunak 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”.
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. “I think that’s to think about it in far too narrow a way.
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”.
The inquiry has struggled to obtain a number of WhatsApp messages from key participants. 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.