Covid Inquiry: Rishi Sunak giving evidence today - what did Prime Minister say about Eat Out To Help Out?
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The Prime Minster is giving evidence to the statutory inquiry today (11 December). As Chancellor, he was notable for rolling out the policy which gave people discounts for eating out at their favourite restaurants and pubs. This was controversial as it encouraged people to socialise and mix during the midst of the pandemic.
Sunak did not notify or seek input from Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Chief Medical Office Sir Chris Whitty or Chief Scientific Officer Sir Patrick Vallance ahead of the day the policy was announced publicly. Both Vallance and Whitty have given evidence to the inquiry saying they would have said this kind of scheme would increase transmission of Covid-19.
The Prime Minister reacted defensively to the scheme, when quizzed by inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC, saying: "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." He added that it would be unusual for him to consult the Health Secretary over what he described as an "economic policy".
Messages have revealed that Government scientists referred to him as “Dr Death, the Chancellor” over concerns about his push to keep economic activity going while leading the Treasury during the pandemic. In Parliament during Prime Minister's Questions Sunak denied he said "just let people die” about lifting lockdown restrictions. Sunak, who received a fixed-penalty notice for breaking Covid rules, is also likely to be quizzed on his involvement in the Partygate scandal.
No record of Sunak's WhatsApp messages
Like Boris Johnson, Sunak has been unable to provide a number of WhatsApp messages to the Inquiry. He said he was not told to save his WhatsApp data after Johnson announced the Inquiry, adding: "I have changed phone multiple times in the years since then, and as I've said previously every time that's happened the messages wouldn't have come across. As I said I'm not a prolific user of WhatsApp."
His official spokesman declined to say whether Sunak has the disappearing messages function on, something the Information Commissioner John Edwards previously said could lead to criminal sanctions. “The Prime Minister abides by the relevant guidance for all communications including on WhatsApp,” he said. The spokesman said that relevant conversations would be recorded by his private office, and it would be up to Sunak or ministers to decide what is pertinent.
'Clash between scientists and the Treasury'
Sunak denied there was a “clash between public health, epidemiological considerations and economic and fiscal issues”. He said: "I think I saw my role as Chancellor of the Exchequer as making sure that the prime minister had the best possible advice, information, analysis relating to the economic impact or consequences of some of the decisions that he was having to make.
"It wasn’t – I didn’t ever describe it as – a clash just between public health and economics. I think that’s to think about it in far too narrow a way."
Sunak said that he saw Johnson more than his wife during this period of time: "We were working very closely together as I was with my other Cabinet colleagues, and as a general rule I was able to participate in everything that I felt I needed to in order to get the evidence, analysis, to him in a way that he could use it to make decisions."
Eat Out To Help Out
Sunak has defended the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, which was designed to stimulate the economy and promote small businesses by giving participants 50% of food and non-alcoholic drinks. The Prime Minister was asked why he didn't consult the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, Hancock, the Chief Medical Officer Whitty and the Chief Scientific Officer Vallace ahead of the announcement on 6 July 2020. Vallance previously told the Inquiry: "I think our advice would have been very clear on that (Eat Out to Help Out)."
The Chief Scientific Office said: "We didn’t see it before it was announced and I think others in the cabinet office also said they didn’t see it before it was formulated as policy. So we weren’t involved in the run up to it. I think it would have been very obvious to anyone that this inevitably would cause an increase in transmission risk, and I think that would have been known by ministers.”
The Inquiry heard that Whitty had told a meeting on 22 June, which Sunak attended, that the biggest risk of increased transmission was indoor hospitality and the return to schools. Sunak, however, did not mention Eat Out To Help Out, counsel Hugo Keith KC said.
Sunak defended the policy, saying: "Eat Out To Help Out had been designed specifically in the context of the safe lifting of NPIs that had already been signed off ... as part of the May plan which had reopened hospitality. Eat Out To Help Out only operated within that context, and there were a significant range of other NPIs that were in place, such as social distancing and Covid secure guidance."
The Prime Minister described the scheme as a "micropolicy" which was "economic" and would not normally have been consulted with the Health Secretary or scientists. He said: "My primary concern was protecting millions of jobs of particularly vulnerable people who worked in this industry. Polling showed unless we did something millions of jobs would have been at risk."
At certain points, Sunak sounded frustrated with the line of questioning saying "if I could just finish because it's important", and arguing that the scientists had ample time to object after it had been announced.
On Sunday, Cabinet Minister Michael Gove argued the policy was announced a month before it was implemented and during this time it was “not the case that there was a public critique”.
“It was an effective way of ensuring that the hospitality industry was supported through a very difficult period, and it was entirely within the broad outlines of rules about social mixing that prevailed at the time,” he told Sky’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips programme.
Ralph Blackburn is NationalWorld’s politics editor based in Westminster, where he gets special access to Parliament, MPs and government briefings. If you liked this article you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here and sign up to his free weekly newsletter Politics Uncovered, which brings you the latest analysis and gossip from Westminster every Sunday morning.