Rishi Sunak on Covid lockdowns: what did he say about coronavirus lockdown UK - and Dominic Cummings’ response

The former chancellor Rishi Sunak has said about lockdown ‘we shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did’

Rishi Sunak has spoken out about the coronavirus lockdowns saying scientists were given too much influence.

The former chancellor and Prime Minister hopeful said not enough consideration was given to the social and economic impact lockdown would have.

The country was first put into lockdown from March to June 2020, while a second national lockdown was imposed in November that year. A third lockdown took place between January to March 2021.

He made the comments in an interview with The Spectator.

But what did he say, what’s previously been said about his stance on lockdown, and how have others reacted? Here’s what you need to know.

Rishi Sunak during the hustings event at the Culloden Hotel in Belfast

What did Rishi Sunak say about lockdown?

In an interview with The Spectator, the Tory leadership hopeful claimed he had often been a lone voice of resistance within the Government.

He also said he “wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off” during the early phases of the pandemic and suggested the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies edited its minutes to hide dissenting opinions.

He said: “The script was not to ever acknowledge them. The script was: oh, there’s no trade off, because doing this for our health is good for the economy.”

“We didn’t talk at all about missed (doctors’) appointments, or the backlog building in the NHS in a massive way. That was never part of it,” he said.

The meetings were “literally me around that table, just fighting”, which “was incredibly uncomfortable every single time”.

At one meeting he raised the impact on children’s education: “I was very emotional about it. I was like ‘Forget about the economy. Surely we can all agree that kids not being in school is a major nightmare’, or something like that.

“There was a big silence afterwards. It was the first time someone had said it. I was so furious.”

Setting out the problems he found with Government policy being influenced by outside academics, he said: “If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed.”

He said that if the trade-offs had been acknowledged from the beginning, in March 2020 when the first lockdown was imposed, then different decisions could have been taken.

“We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did,” he said.

“And you have to acknowledge trade-offs from the beginning. If we’d done all of that, we could be in a very different place.”

He suggested different decisions could have been reached on keeping schools open and the lockdown could have been shorter.

Mr Sunak suggested that minutes of Sage meetings, setting out the discussions on guidance for ministers, had omitted dissenting views.

He claimed the panel members did not realise there was a Treasury representative on their calls, feeding back to him.

He said she would tell him: “‘Well, actually, it turns out that lots of people disagreed with that conclusion’, or ‘Here are the reasons that they were not sure about it’. So at least I would be able to go into these meetings better armed.”

What has he previously said about lockdown?

Mr Sunak said in an interview with LBC in July that he flew back from a government trip to the US to stop a new Covid-19 lockdown being imposed last December.

He said the country was “hours away from a press conference” announcing the measures over the Omicron variant.

Mr Sunak said in an interview with Andrew Marr: “I flew back to this country to stop us sleepwalking into a national lockdown because we were hours away from a press conference that was going to lock this country down again because of Omicron.”

He said he “fought very hard against the system” as he believed it would be wrong for the country “with all the damage it would have done to businesses, to children’s education, to people’s lives”.

Meanwhile the Metro reported in September 2020 that Boris Johnson had abandoned plans for a second national lockdown over fears Mr Sunak would quit. A senior MP told the publication: “Rishi simply wouldn’t wear it. His stance was so firm.”

That month Mr Sunak had unveiled his winter economic plan and said at the time: “Our lives can no longer be put on hold.”

Speaking in November 2020 Mr Sunak warned the second national lockdown would have a “significant impact on the economy”.

He told SKy News: “Obviously restrictions of this nature do have a significant impact on the economy. We’ve alreadyseen that when we’ve done this over the spring.”

What has been the reaction to what Mr Sunak said?

Boris Johnson’s former communications chief, Lee Cain, dismissed Mr Sunak’s assessment of the situation, saying he is “simply wrong”.

Mr Cain said: “It would have been morally irresponsible of the Government not to implement lockdown in spring 2020 – the failure to do so would have killed tens of thousands of people who survived Covid.

“In addition, without lockdown the NHS simply could not have survived and would have been overwhelmed.”

That would have resulted in an “even greater backlog” and more excess deaths from incidents such as missed cancer appointments, he suggested.

Meanwhile, former chief adviser to Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings tweeted that: “The Sunak interview is dangerous rubbish, reads like a man whose epicly bad campaign has melted his brain & he’s about to quit politics.”

A No 10 spokesman said: “Throughout the pandemic, public health, education and the economy were central to the difficult decisions made on Covid restrictions to protect the British public from an unprecedented novel virus.

“At every point, ministers made collective decisions which considered a wide range of expert advice available at the time in order to protect public health.

“The UK Government spent over £400 billion to support people, families and their livelihoods throughout our response to the pandemic, which included the fastest lifesaving vaccine rollout in Europe.”