Rishi Sunak faces grilling at Covid inquiry next week

PM will be under huge scrutiny over his ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme at Monday hearing

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Thursday 07 December 2023 18:06 GMT
Boris Johnson heckled as he arrives at Covid Inquiry for second day

Embattled Tory leader Rishi Sunak will be grilled about his actions during the pandemic when he appears before the Covid inquiry on Monday.

The PM is fighting to save his premiership after resignation of immigration minister Robert Jenrick, as he failed to appease the Tory right with his Rwanda legislation.

Adding to Mr Sunak’s woes, it emerged that he will be hauled up in front of the public inquiry within days to answer questions about his time as chancellor.

He is likely to be questioned about the impact of his controversial policies such as the Eat Out to Help Out scheme to boost the restaurant trade during a resurgence of the virus.

Government advisers referred to Mr Sunak as “Dr Death” during the pandemic, WhatsApp messages shown to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry have revealed, because of concerns about the impact of his push to keep economic activity going.

The correspondence between epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds and Professor Dame Angela McLean – now chief scientific adviser to the government – took place during a meeting in September 2020.

Dame Angela messaged Prof Edmunds, referring to “Dr Death the Chancellor”, the inquiry was told.

Sunak will be under scrutiny over ‘Eat Out to Help Out’

Prof Edmunds told the inquiry the reference “could well be” about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which was devised by then-chancellor Mr Sunak and deployed a month earlier in a bid to kickstart the restaurant industry following lockdown.

The announcement that Mr Sunak will face a whole day of questioning on Monday came as former prime minister Boris Johnson began his second day of questioning.

Baroness Hallett’s inquiry has heard that scientists and then-health secretary Matt Hancock were left out of discussions around the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which offered discounted meals in summer 2020 to help the hospitality trade after lockdown measures were lifted.

Mr Hancock told the inquiry he was not told about the scheme until the day it was announced and “argued very strongly” against the possibility of extending it at the end of August 2020.

The inquiry has also heard that former chief scientific adviser Professor Sir Patrick Vallance, England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty and their former deputies Dame Angela and Sir Jonathan Van-Tam were also not told about the scheme.

Sir Jonathan said: “I would have said ‘This is exactly encouraging what we’ve been trying to suppress and get on top of in the last few months’. So it didn’t feel sensible to me.”

Prof Edmunds said he did not want to blame Eat Out To Help Out for the second Covid-19 wave, but the “optics” around the scheme were “terrible”.

He said he understood the restaurant sector needed support, but that this “was not really just supporting them”.

“They could have just given them money,” he added. “This was a scheme to encourage people to take an epidemiological risk.”

In response to the comments, inquiry counsel Hugo Keith said: “To make it clear, there is very little or there’s weak epidemiological evidence to show that infections in the areas in which people took up the scheme went up significantly. Your point is at the optics of it.”

Prof Edmunds said advisers were measuring public behaviour in August and at the time there was a change. He added: “I wouldn’t say it was Eat Out To Help Out, but it was contributing.”

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