Rishi Sunak says he is looking forward to giving evidence to the Covid inquiry — he shouldn’t be.
The PM was asked at the last prime minister’s questions before parliament’s prorogation by Labour MP Lilian Greenwood whether he agrees that all devices should be “handed over to experts” to retrieve the requisite information for the Covid inquiry to continue its investigations. It was noted that “despite being a self-described tech bro, the prime minister has been unable to locate and provide his WhatsApp messages to the inquiry”.
Sunak side-stepped the question, insisting “I have fully co-operated to provide tens of thousands of documents to the Covid inquiry”.
“I look forward to giving evidence later this year”, he closed.
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The prime minister’s level of transparency with regard to the Covid inquiry is a debate in itself — given his government has sued, unsuccessfully, the body created to scrutinise the government’s pandemic performance. But after the High Court sided with the inquiry and reaffirmed its legal right to view Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages, notebooks and diaries (which the ex-PM was all too happy to send over), the government insisted it would “comply fully” with the judgement.
Confidentiality and secrecy are, of course, the default positions of whoever is in power, but as the inquiry began its investigations, there were questions about what the PM might be trying to hide. Today, with the witness sessions now well underway and the acquired written evidence — by way of a tranche of WhatsApps, diaries and notebooks — being drip-fed into the public domain via witness cross-examinations, we see that the inquiry has already prompted some uncomfortable news lines for the PM.
For instance, it has been revealed by the inquiry that the government’s recently-appointed chief scientific adviser described Rishi Sunak as “Dr Death, the Chancellor” in WhatsApps sent during a crucial pandemic meeting.
The moniker appears to have been the brainchild of Professor Angela McLean, then chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence, who co-chaired the influential SPI-M modelling group during the pandemic. It is thought to have been born of Sunak’s enthusiastic championing of the government’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, which was designed to usher Covid-shy Britons out of their bubbles and into restaurants, and had been running that summer.
According to a study carried out by Thiemo Fetzer, an economist at the University of Warwick, the scheme drove new Covid-19 infections up by between 8 and 17 per cent. And Catherine Noakes, who chaired Sage’s environmental modelling group, has separately told the inquiry that her body did not assess Sunak’s flagship scheme. “Had we been asked about Eat Out to Help Out, I think we would have had a concern”, Noakes explained earlier this month.
The video call during which the now-infamous “Dr Death” WhatsApp message was typed and sent included key figures from the pandemic such as Sunak, then-PM Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty.
Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser at the time, appears to have been another private critic of Sunak’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme. In fact, during the proceedings of the Covid Inquiry yesterday it was revealed Whitty referred to the “Eat out To Help Out” scheme as “Eat out to help out the virus”.
Also among the revelations yesterday, was the news that in March 2020, shortly before the full lockdown was announced, a meeting between Johnson and Sunak was held in which one of the participants asked what was the point of having an economy-destroying lockdown “for people who will die anyway soon”.
The man in the dock, Imran Shafi, Boris Johnson’s private secretary for public services at the time, told the inquiry he thought it was the ex-PM who made the comments. But one wonders, with Johnson and Sunak set to appear before the inquiry next month, whether the recollections of these now-sworn political enemies will differ.
Personalities aside, yesterday’s revelations confirm once more that Sunak was a central figure in the pandemic, including during the government’s most controversial moments. He was part of the government — the second most senior elected official in it, even — that WhatsApp messages show the cabinet secretary Simon Case called a “terrible, tragic joke”.
It is clear now that the PM, who has already been fined for an apparent lockdown-busting gathering on 19 June 2020 in the cabinet room, will be forced to firm further bad Covid news stories throughout 2024, an expected election year.
Moreover, Sunak is perhaps especially exposed for his role during the pandemic — not only because he is PM, meaning revelations will naturally exact a political toll — but, as the “Covid chancellor”, furlough and “Eat out To Help Out” were the schemes that introduced the public at large to the now-PM. Throughout the pandemic, Sunak’s perceived generosity and easy-going demeanour even garnered him the nickname “Dishy Rishi”.
In this way, when the Eat Out To Help Out scheme was launched in August 2020, 48 per cent of the public thought Rishi Sunak was doing a good job as chancellor, with only 15 per cent saying the opposite, according to YouGov polling.
Perhaps tellingly, the PM has since cited the furlough scheme as evidence of his “compassion” and record of delivery. In his first speech as prime minister outside No 10 in October last year, Sunak asserted: “You saw me during Covid, doing everything I could, to protect people and businesses, with schemes like furlough.
“There are always limits, more so now than ever, but I promise you this I will bring that same compassion to the challenges we face today”, he added.
The Covid Inquiry now threatens to pry beneath the glossy social media ads and catchy slogans. While conventional wisdom suggests the then-chancellor benefited immensely from the pandemic, we may be beginning to see the skeletons that lie in Sunak’s Covid closet.
Of course, we know that Eat Out To Help Out involved trade-offs (all government decisions do), but we are only beginning to piece together the details of Sunak’s decision-making, and how such trade-offs were weighed in the Treasury; or as Noakes testimony suggests, whether they were weighed at all.
In this way, it is also well-known that Rishi Sunak was the cabinet’s biggest and most influential lockdown sceptic throughout the pandemic. Even before we get to the inquiry’s revelations, in his pitch to be Conservative leader in the summer of 2022, Sunak told the Spectator that it had been a mistake to “empower” scientists during Covid and that the downsides of lockdowns had been suppressed.
He revealed he had been banned by officials in Johnson’s office from discussing the “trade-offs” of imposing coronavirus-related restrictions.
Dominic Cummings’ response was to say Sunak “seems to be suffering… from rewrite-history-syndrome”. For Cummings and others, Sunak appears to have been the de facto leader of what was termed the “let it rip brigade” — those ministers and advisers lobbying the government to soften its virus containment measures.
And there was no reason to believe Sunak was being insincere in his comments to the Spectator — or to suggest that he was leveraging his lockdown scepticism as part of a broader pitch aimed at the Conservative selectorate. Indeed, a Sunday Times investigation published in December 2020 suggested that the then-chancellor had persuaded the PM not to go for a quick lockdown in the September — which was backed by his then chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, health secretary Matt Hancock and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove.
Of course, right now, the covid inquiry seems to have become forum for the various excesses of “Long Boris” as the ex-PM’s former advisers slate the man they referred to at the time as a careering, out-of-control trolley.
But with Sunak set to appear in the dock next month there could be plenty more unwelcome surprises for the current PM. With this backdrop, Sunak’s decision to style himself as the “change” candidate seems even more politically maladroit.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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