Rishi Sunak denies leading 'pro-death squad' during pandemic - what you missed

Sunak faced questions over his work during the pandemic, including the Eat Out to Help Out scheme

A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry shows Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak giving evidence at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, in west London, on December 11, 2023. Sunak faced questions Monday over whether his
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gives evidence at the COVID-19 Inquiry. Sunak faced questions Monday over whether his "Eat Out to Help Out" scheme to help the struggling hospitality sector during the pandemic spurred the spread of coronavirus. (AFP via Getty Images)

The prime minister has said it was unfair to describe the Treasury under his leadership during the pandemic as a “pro-death squad”.

Speaking at the COVID Inquiry on Monday, Sunak denied being aware of the characterisation of the department - despite the inquiry previously hearing claims that Boris Johnson made this remark during his time as prime minister during the pandemic.

Some No 10 officials were thought to have used the term in reference to the Treasury being opposed to maximum public health interventions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

When asked if he was aware of this, Sunak said: “I wasn’t, and I do not think it is a fair characterisation on the incredibly hardworking people that I was lucky to be supported by at the Treasury.”

With Monday's session now over, here are the highlights from Rishi Sunak's tough day of questioning:

  • Rishi Sunak told the inquiry he no longer has access to WhatsApp messages sent during the time of the crisis. "I've changed my phone multiple times over the past few years, and as that has happened the messages have not come across," he said.

  • The three-tier system of lockdowns was a sensible thing to try at the time, Sunak said, commenting that this was the genral consensus among the scientific community.

  • SAGE was more divided than people realised, Sunak said, explaining: “I think Sage’s views were presented as a consensus or a single view. I think there was definitely not an accurate perception of the degree of debate – that lack of consensus – within Sage.”

  • Sunak denied he was warned against Eat Out to Help Out by Matt Hancock, also claiming the scheme protected "millions" of jobs held by "particularly vulnerable people" in the hospitality sector.

  • Sunak batted away criticism of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, saying that scientists had a month to raise concerns. "They've not said that to me, I've not seen that and as I've said they had ample opportunity to raise those concerns... None of them chose to do so," he said.

  • Sunak denied wanting to lockdown London first over financial concerns. He told the inquiry: "My job was to provide him [Johnson] with the best economic evidence, advice, analysis and it was a relevant consideration... there was this situation in the financial market, it was right for him to know."

  • Asked about a Spectator article which suggested he privately lobbied Johnson and tried not to “leave a paper trail”, Sunak said there were “multiple moments I would write to him”. However, he added, "“If you happen to be neighbours, it’s impossible not to see each other outside of a formal Covid S meeting."

You can read more about Rishi Sunak's testimony in our blog below.