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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.

Live coverage is over
  • Yahoo News Uk

    Wales 'could have complained about Eat Out to Help Out, despite not being consulted'

    The inquiry previously heard how the UK's devolved nations were not consulted on Rishi Sunak's Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

    Asked by a representative of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru group if the Welsh government had the opportunity to opt out, Sunak said he wasn't aware of such a request.

    Responding to the suggestion that this was due to a "lack of consultation" with devolved governments, the prime minister said they shouldn't expect him to as it was a national policy.

    He responded: "I wouldn't expect them to consult me on things that they were doing that were in their devolved competence - every time they were making a budget decision... that's how our devolution settlement works."

    When asked if the devolved governments had a chance to complain after the policy was announced, Sunak said: "They always have the opportunity, and they frequently do."


  • Yahoo News Uk

    'My department was not a pro-death squad', Rishi Sunak tells inquiry

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

    The inquiry previously heard 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.”

  • Yahoo News Uk

    Three-tier system was a 'sensible thing to try at the time', Rishi Sunak insists

    The prime minister has responded to Matt Hancock's claims earlier in the inquiry that he knew a tiered system of localised lockdowns wouldn't work.

    Rishi Sunak said the "general consensus" among medical and scientific advisers going into the autumn of 2020 was in favour of a local approach and that it was a "sensible thing to try".

    The three-tiered system, indicating different levels of COVID risk in different parts of the country, was introduced on 14 October with the aim to allow some businesses to stay open in safer areas.

    Sunak said he remembered the chief medical officer saying in a Sage meeting around late September or early September saying that other parts of Europe had seen more localised outbreaks, and that the UK could follow this pattern.

    But lead counsel Hugo Keith KC challenged this, saying that "by October and by the time of the introduction of the tier system", the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser "made it absolutely plain" that it would "simply not suffice" in reducing the R-number.

    He suggested Sunak was aware the policy was a "bit of a chance" epidemiologically.

    The prime minister said that he was "specifically opposed" to a two-week "circuit-breaker" lockdown because he didn't think it would work, but thought a regional approach would. Sunak accepted that, with the "benefit of hindsight", it didn't.

  • Yahoo News Uk

    Sage was 'more divided on Covid than people realised', Sunak tells inquiry

    The prime minister has told today's inquiry hearing that there was less consensus among the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) than the public realised.

    Rishi Sunak said: “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.”

    the former chancellor added: “I think, in hindsight and reflection, it probably would be good to have made sure that there was a broader awareness of that point.”

    He continued: “So the science itself was not certain. It was not singular, there was more debate about it.

    “I’m not sure that nuance was communicated, perhaps, as much as it should have been so that people could understand the decisions we were making.

    "It wasn’t as simple as crystal clear science view, crystal clear some other view. The science itself had a range of views."

  • Yahoo News Uk

    Eat Out to Help Out protected 'millions' from 'devastating' job losses, Sunak says

    Rishi Sunak was eager to defend his flagship policy at today's hearing. (Getty Images)

    The Eat Out to Help Out scheme helped protect workers from the “devastating consequences” of job losses, Rishi Sunak has said.

    He told the inquiry there were "millions" of jobs held by "particularly vulnerable people" in the hospitality industry and that his flagship scheme was the "right thing to do".

    The former chancellor said: “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.”

    However, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, is said to have privately referred to the scheme to boost the restaurant industry as “eat out to help out the virus”.

    Former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance previously told the inquiry the scheme was "highly likely" to have fuelled deaths.

    However, Sunak insisted that his scheme was a "micro-policy" and was all part of the planned framework of re-opening announced in May.

    The prime minister said it was balanced with safety measures like "social distancing, Covid secure guidance, table service, contactless ordering, one-way systems, all of which had been put in place".

  • Yahoo News Uk

    Rishi Sunak denies Matt Hancock warned him about Eat Out to Help Out

    Rishi Sunak has contradicted Matt Hancock’s claim that he warned the Treasury that Eat Out To Help Out was causing problems regarding COVID prevention.

    Lead counsel Hugo Keith KC asked the former chancellor whether he was aware the then-health secretary had raised concerns about the scheme to the Treasury.

    Hancock had previously claimed he had done so in an August 2020 message as he was arguing against the extension.

    “I have no recollection of him raising that nor do I have any record of him doing so with me at the time,” Sunak said.

    “But I do know he has said that there has been undue focus on this one item in his evidence to the inquiry.”

  • Yahoo News Uk

    Top scientists 'would have warned about Eat Out to Help Out if they were asked'

    Hugo Keith KC put it to Rishi Sunak that Eat Out to Help Out "wasn't just a fiscal issue", but a "behavioural matter" too.

    The lead counsel made this point as he asked why practically no one outside No 10 had been given advance notice of the policy, which encouraged people from different households to eat at restaurants.

    Eat Out To Help Out was announced on 8 July 2020 and was implemented the following month.

    Sunak insisted that all of the necessarily safety measures were in place at restaurants and that it had "already been part of the May plan" and "collectively agreed upon".

    He said the Cabinet Office even "ran a national campaign" telling the public to "enjoy summer safely" due to progress made in controlling the pandemic.

    However, Keith referred to evidence from Sir Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance and Sir Jonathan Van Tam is "unanimous" that "had they been consulted, they would have advised it was highly likely to increase transmission".

    "It was an issue on which they would have expected to be consulted," Keith added.

    The prime minister replied: "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."


  • Yahoo News Uk

    'They had a month to raise concerns': Sunak rebukes criticism over Eat Out to Help Out

    Rishi Sunak has said there was "almost a month between the announcement of Eat Out to Help Out and its commencement".

    The former chancellor said this in response to criticism that the Treasury did not warn the health secretary, Sage and the Chief Medical Officer.

    Striking a defensive tone, he recalled three Covid meetings after his flagship policy was announced, adding that concerns were more focused on the risk of returning to schools.

    "Those three meetings all happened after the announcement of the Eat Out to Help Out. All of them involved the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer," the prime minister said.

    "They considered specifically the forthcoming risks. And none of those meetings was it raised by them as an issue."

    He said former PM Boris Johnson has "also been specific in his evidence to this inquiry that he doesn't recall representations being made to them to revisit the policy".


  • Harriet Sinclair

    Sunak defends Eat Out to Help Out

    Rishi Sunak has defended his controversial Eat Out To Help Out scheme by saying it was just a “micro policy” within the overall reopening plan.

    Lead counsel Hugo Keith KC began his questioning on the topic by asking the former chancellor why, in light of the risk of transmission inherent in the initiative bringing people together indoors, scientific advisers and the health secretary were not consulted.

    The prime minister said: “Because Eat Out To Help Out had been designed specifically in the context of the safe lifting of NPIs (non-pharmaceutical interventions) that had already been signed off, as we talked about before, as part of the May plan, which had reopened hospitality – indoor hospitality. That had already been part of the approved May plan.

    “Eat Out To Help Out only operated within that context. And indeed there were a significant range of other NPIs that were in place, including social distancing, Covid secure guidance, table service, contactless ordering, one-way systems, all of which had been put in place.”

    He added: “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. And it was done very much in that context.”


  • Harriet Sinclair

    Rishi Sunak says he ‘consistently’ warned Boris Johnson about lockdown impacts

    Rishi Sunak has told the COVID inquiry he “consistently” warned Boris Johnson about the wider impacts of lockdowns.

    Sunak said: “One of the consistent arguments I made from the beginning was making sure we collectively and the prime minister considered the totality of the impacts of the decisions that we were making.” Sunak earlier apologised to those who lost loved ones during the pandemic.

    Read the full story from The Independent