Matters of life and death: Sunak faces mounting danger at Covid inquiry | Rishi Sunak #Matters #life #death #Sunak #faces #mounting #danger #Covid #inquiry #Rishi #Sunak

It was the first time the Covid inquiry had heard directly from Rishi Sunak and things went immediately awry for the prime minister: his claim in a witness statement that no one had raised concerns about a flagship pandemic policy was immediately contradicted by the government’s former chief scientific adviser.

Monday’s tussle over the “eat out to help out” scheme, in which Sir Patrick Vallance responded to an extract read out from Sunak’s statement, which has yet to be published, was arguably more embarrassing than damaging.

But with the prime minister scheduled to appear in person soon, the dangers are piling up. More and more details are emerging about the role of the man referred to disparagingly by one scientific adviser as “Dr Death the chancellor”.

The perils fall into two broad camps. The first is the narrative emerging from a range of evidence and testimony that Sunak’s Treasury was, in the words of Boris Johnson, as recorded in Vallance’s diary, “the pro-death squad” – that is to say, so intent on prioritising economic reopening that it put public safety at risk.

Much of this centres around eat out to help out: a brief but lavish £850m scheme in summer 2020 to incentivise people to go in person to cafes and restaurants; a scheme the inquiry has been told was imposed without any consultation, leaving Vallance and others “blindsided”.

The second danger is arguably more acute: an emerging suggestion that the prime minister was not only reckless in seeking to sideline advisers but could now be trying to cover up this failure.

It is worth noting that however badly Sunak’s apparently gung-ho approach to reopening the economy might land with some voters, it could equally win him plaudits among anti-lockdown Conservative MPs, plus certain rightwing newspapers and TV channels.

Sunak could thus be minded to unapologetically present himself as the voice of economic and social reality, an attempted counterweight to restriction-obsessed scientists.

If he does, there is certainly no lack of evidence to back this up. Witness after witness has stressed Sunak’s keenness to lift restrictions, exemplified by the “Dr Death” moniker, used in a private message by Prof Dame Angela McLean, who has since replaced Vallance as chief scientific adviser.

Vallance’s diary repeatedly showed his apparent annoyance with the then chancellor, one extract saying Sunak made “increasingly specific and spurious arguments” against new restrictions. It also recalled Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former aide, summarising Sunak’s view as “just let people die and that’s OK”.

A particularly eye-opening extract recounted Sunak telling a virtual meeting on economics that his job was “all about handling the scientists, not handling the virus”, not realising Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, was on the call.

To defend all of this would involve justifying eat out to help out, a proposal which, studies have suggested, might have been responsible for up to a sixth of new infection clusters that summer as well as causing an increase in Covid deaths among the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, heavily represented in the hospitality industry.

One point of near-unanimity among scientists speaking to the inquiry has been incredulity at the idea of paying people to mingle in public spaces when months of previous advice had urged the opposite.

John Edmunds, a professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said he was “still angry” at the plan, adding: “This was a scheme to encourage people to take an epidemiological risk.”

In his testimony, Vallance said eat out to help out “completely reversed” public health messaging. “It’s quite likely that had an effect on transmission,” he said. “In fact it’s very difficult to see how it wouldn’t have had an effect on transmission, and that would have been the advice that was given, had we been asked beforehand.”

It was during this exchange that Andrew O’Connor KC gave the inquiry the first view of Sunak not filtered through someone else’s recollections, reading out the snippet from the prime minister’s evidence.

When eat out to help out was running, and in the run-up to its launch, “I do not recall any concerns about the scheme being expressed during ministerial discussions, including those attended by the CMO [Whitty] and CSA [Vallance]”, Sunak said in his statement, which will be released in full after he has spoken.

Asked if this was accurate, Vallance was polite but clear. “I think it would have been very obvious to anyone that this was likely to cause – well, inevitably would cause – an increase in transmission risk, and I think that would have been known by ministers,” he said, adding he would be “very surprised” if Sunak had not known it.

All this must be put into context. Sunak has not, like Johnson, been portrayed during the inquiry as a borderline-sentient hologram of a leader who failed to grasp basic science and would adopt the view of whoever he last spoke to; nor, as with Matt Hancock, has he been dismissed as congenitally untrustworthy.

Also, Sunak faces more immediate worries, everything from a stagnating economy to high net migration figures and an increasingly restive Conservative party.

But with an election looming and defeat increasingly likely, Sunak will be thinking about whatever thin legacy the history books will grant him. “The man who killed an unknown number of Britons by recklessly ignoring expert advice” is not the political epitaph he will want. If he gets it wrong at the inquiry, it might nonetheless be the one he gets.

#Matters #life #death #Sunak #faces #mounting #danger #Covid #inquiry #Rishi #Sunak

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