Sunak claimed the role of Covid hero. Lady Hallett may reveal a different tale

Role of eat out to help out scheme in increased cases and Treasury hostility to scientific advice may come under spotlight

At the start of a Tory leadership debate hosted by the Sun last July, Rishi Sunak made a series of statements which, 10 months on, all ring equally hollow.

Facing Liz Truss – the contest’s eventual winner – Sunak was at pains to acknowledge that Sun readers were struggling with the cost of living. But he also wanted to temper his concern for them with optimism about Britain’s prospects.

He noted that there were “incredible opportunities, not least because of Brexit,” adding that “like many of you, I was proud to vote for that”. He vowed, if he became prime minister, to “grip inflation”, “cut EU red tape”, get “taxes down” and “do whatever it takes to tackle illegal immigration”.

After the events of recent days, however, it was the prime minister’s attempt on that occasion to portray himself as a hero of the pandemic that may spell most danger to his reputation. “As chancellor,” he boasted, “you saw that I successfully helped 10 million people protect their jobs and the economy from Covid, so I have got a record you can believe in.”

Last Thursday the government took the extraordinary step of announcing that it was seeking a judicial review to prevent the independent judge-led inquiry into the handling of Covid, which it had set up, from getting hold of former prime minister Boris Johnson’s uncensored WhatsApp messages and diaries.

The Cabinet Office said there was an important “principle” at stake about privacy, and argued that much of the material was completely irrelevant, while insisting it was doing all it could to help Lady Hallett in her endeavours.

The saga, while often tedious, nonetheless has huge political ramifications that will be felt before and beyond the next general election. And one question, above all, needs to be answered.

Johnson and Sunak at a London pizza restaurant in June 2020, as the first lockdown was ending.
Johnson and Sunak at a London pizza restaurant in June 2020, as the first lockdown was ending. Photograph: Heathcliff O’Malley/AFP/Getty Images

It is this: if the requests from Hallett’s inquiry have all, so far, concerned only Johnson’s messages and scribblings, what exactly are the Cabinet Office and the current prime minister (no friend of Johnson) so worried about?

One answer may be that Johnson’s WhatsApps include embarrassing and revealing messages involving Sunak and other ministers still serving in government.

But the real reason may well have more to do with what could be contained in thousands of messages about Sunak’s wider role as chancellor of the exchequer during Covid, which plenty of eminent people in science and medicine believe is far more open to challenge and criticism than he or his inner circle want to admit. What the government fears is that a precedent will have been set – if Johnson’s messages are handed over, Sunak’s will have to be too.

It is true that the Treasury under Sunak’s leadership conceived and managed the furlough scheme, saving many jobs and businesses. But it also ran and promoted the widely criticised (by scientists and doctors) Eat Out to Help Out scheme which is thought to have led to a jump in Covid cases. It also resisted the views of scientists and the medical establishment who were calling for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown in the autumn of 2020. Scientists at the time saw the Treasury as concerned almost exclusively with economic arguments about Covid, and very little with the implications of its policies for the spread of the Covid virus.

A 2021 report by the Commons health and social care and science and technology committees jointly chaired at that time by Jeremy Hunt, now Sunak’s chancellor, made it clear that the decision by No 10 and the Treasury to resist a circuit-breaker had been wrong: “In this decision not to have a circuit-breaker, the UK government did not follow the official scientific advice. Ministers were clearly over-optimistic in their assumption that the worst was behind us during the summer months of 2020.” Sunak was quite open about his opposition to involving scientists too much during Covid. In 2022 he told the Spectator: “We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did.”

In 2022 medical journal the BMJ carried an article saying that “Rishi Sunak’s actions during the Covid-19 pandemic tell us a great deal about his attitudes towards healthcare and science – and therefore how these may fare under his tenure as UK prime minister.” The piece is highly critical of his approach.

As she prepares to open her inquiry there are already signs that Hallett is on Sunak’s case, as well as Johnson’s. Hallett has put 150 questions to Johnson about his and his government’s role in the pandemic. She is likely to have sent, or to be about to send, a similar list to Sunak.

Both the current and former PMs will give evidence in person to the inquiry. Several of Hallett’s questions to Johnson show a clear line of thinking. She asks: “What discussions did you have with the then chancellor about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme prior to its implementation in August 2020? Did you support the introduction of the Eat Out to Help out scheme at the time? Did you consider at the time, the potential impact of the scheme on the number of Covid-19 infections? Did you ascertain whether the Treasury had sought or received scientific advice in respect of its Eat Out to Help Out scheme prior to its implementation? If not, did you advise the then chancellor or the Treasury that such scientific advice should be sought? If not, why not?”

When Sunak announced the discount scheme as a way to revive business in restaurants, cafes and pubs, he made sure he was the public face of it. He was photographed serving customers at a Wagamama restaurant at the launch in August 2020. But Warwick University research, which the BMJ says “tallies with Public Health England data”, suggests it caused a marked rise in Covid cases.

There appears to have been little consultation about Eat Out to Help Out in government before it was launched. In his book Johnson at 10: The Inside Story Anthony Seldon says the first that the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, knew about it was when he read a press release.

Hancock later wrote to the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, raising his concerns about the damage it was doing: “Just want to let you know directly that we have had lots of feedback that Eat Out to Help Out is causing problems in our intervention areas. I’ve kept it out of the news but it’s serious. So please please let’s not allow the economic success of the scheme to lead to its extension.”

Sunak has liked to portray himself as a hero of Covid. The reason he may be so resistant to handing over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages to Hallett is that he fears it would allow her to form an altogether different conclusion.


Toby Helm

The GuardianTramp

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