Rishi Sunak’s evidence to the UK’s Covid inquiry began with him saying he was “deeply sorry to all those who lost loved ones” during the pandemic, and saw him grilled over his controversial “eat out to help out” discount hospitality scheme. Here are some of the key moments and claims from his daylong evidence.
Defence of eat out to help out
The prime minister defended the 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 Sunak 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.
Sunak, who was chancellor during the pandemic, 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 part of the May plan, which had reopened hospitality – indoor hospitality. That had already been part of the approved May plan.”
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.”
The eat out to help out scheme was announced on 8 July 2020 and implemented the following month.
The inquiry heard previously that scientists, such as the then UK chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and England’s chief medical officer, Sir Chris Whitty, were not aware of the scheme until it was announced.
When Keith asked why the Treasury did not “raise expressly” the matter of the scheme in Covid meetings on 16 July, 22 July and 6 August 2020, Sunak said there was “a month for people to raise concerns that they may have had”.
An explanation for missing WhatsApp messages
Keith asked the prime minister about his phone and his claim he did not have access to any of the WhatsApp messages sent during the crisis.
Sunak replied: “No, I don’t. I’ve changed my phone multiple times over the past few years and, as that has happened, the messages have not come across.
“As you said, I’m not a prolific user of WhatsApp in the first instance – primarily communication with my private office and obviously anything that was of significance through those conversations or exchanges would have been recorded officially by my civil servants, as one would expect.”
Treasury was not a ‘pro-death squad’
Sunak said it was unfair to describe the Treasury under his leadership during the pandemic as a “pro-death squad”.
The former chancellor was asked by Keith whether he was aware of the description used by some No 10 officials to refer to the department being opposed to maximum public health interventions.
The prime minister 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.”
The inquiry has also heard that Angela McLean, now the UK’s chief scientific adviser, branded the chancellor himself as “Dr Death the chancellor”.
Denied using the term ‘freeloaders’
Sunak denied that anyone in government said people requiring free school meals for their children during the pandemic were “freeloaders”.
He was also asked if he personally opposed giving free schools meals to deprived children during the summer holidays in June 2021.
Sunak replied that the provision of meals was now “greater and more generously funded” than pre-pandemic due to the measures put in place during the crisis.
He added that the holiday activity and food programme at the time was “one of the most generous and comprehensive support packages put in place anywhere in the world, that disproportionately did benefit the most vulnerable”.
Downing Street felt ‘fine to me’
In response to claims of No 10 being chaotic, toxic and dysfunctional, as the inquiry has previously heard, Sunak suggested that, while he did not work directly in No 10 or in the Cabinet Office, he experienced no particular issues in his own dealings with them.
“It’s hard for me to comment … other than to say that my interactions with No 10 and the Cabinet Office during this period felt fine to me … Was I able to input advice to the prime minister or when decisions were being made? I felt I was. I didn’t feel I’d been shut out or not able to participate.”
Chats with Johnson in the garden
Sunak told the inquiry that all Covid decisions were made within formal structures. But he said it was inevitable that he and Johnson would have informal chats, as it was a “practical reality of being neighbours and sharing a garden” in Downing Street.
He told the inquiry: “If you happen to be neighbours, it’s impossible not to see each other outside of a formal Covid S meeting [with ministers].
“That’s just the practical reality of being neighbours and sharing a garden, and living in the same building. So, it would be weird not to have had conversations about life, family, friends, work, at the same time.”
Being a lone voice
Sunak was asked about an email from his principal private secretary on 21 May 2020 summarising a meeting between him and Johnson regarding the plan for lifting restrictions.
It said nobody could say the “chancellor has not eloquently and authentically put these points across … but once again, he was a lone voice, and it was a tricky meeting where the sense was they were trying to appease him”.
Sunak told the inquiry he could not recall what that referred to, but generally at this time he was “making the points about the economic impact, what was happening internationally, the fact that we were investing in test and trace”, and ways of managing an exit from lockdown.
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