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Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out drove second Covid wave, Vallance tells inquiry

Sir Patrick’s evidence is the first time a senior figure from government at the time has confirmed the discount meals policy was a driver of transmission

Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme almost certainly drove a second wave of Covid cases in the UK, the former government chief scientific adviser has told the inquiry into the pandemic.

Sir Patrick Vallance said it is “very difficult to see how it [the scheme] wouldn’t have had an effect on transmission”.

While the half-price discount offer in August 2020, devised by the then chancellor, has previously been linked to a second wave by independent scientists and critics of the policy, Sir Patrick’s evidence is the first time a senior figure from government at the time has confirmed it was a driver of transmission.

The former scientific adviser said Rishi Sunak should have known the effect Eat Out To Help Out would have had on transmission because he was in all the relevant meetings at the time.

The evidence from Sir Patrick will put pressure on the current Prime Minister’s handling of the response to the pandemic. Mr Sunak is giving his own evidence early next month, but he has told the inquiry in a written witness statement that he does not “recall any concerns” made about the policy from Sir Patrick or other scientific advisers.

The inquiry has previously heard how Mr Sunak was referred to as “Dr Death the chancellor” by Dame Angela McLean, who is Sir Patrick’s successor, in reference to the controversial Eat Out To Help Out policy.

Neither Sir Patrick nor Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, was informed of the scheme before it was announced by the Treasury in July 2020.

Sir Patrick said their advice “would have been very clear”, adding that the public health message up until that point was “interaction between different households and people that you weren’t living with in an enclosed environment with many others is a high-risk activity”.

He said: “That policy completely reversed it to saying: ‘We will pay you to go into an environment with people from other households and mix in an indoor environment for periods extended over a couple of hours or more.’

“And that is a completely opposite public health message.

“As a result of that, it’s quite likely that had an effect on transmission. 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.”

Asked whether Mr Sunak would have been aware of the risks, Sir Patrick said it had been discussed at Cabinet “our concern that people were piling on more and more things” that would drive up cases.

“So I think it would have been very obvious to anyone that this was likely to cause an issue that inevitably would cause an increase in transmission risk.

“And I think that would have been known by ministers, and if he was in the meetings, I can’t recall which meetings he was in, but I’d be very surprised if any minister didn’t understand that these openings carried risk.”

In his written statement to the inquiry, the current Prime Minister said of the Eat Out To Help Out scheme: “Throughout the period at which EOTHO was in operation, and immediately prior to its implementation, I do not recall any concerns about the scheme being expressed during ministerial discussions, including those attended by the CMO and CSA.”

Mr Sunak also wanted the scientists to be “handled” in the run-up to his Eat Out To Help Out policy, the inquiry heard.

On 2 July 2020, Sir Patrick wrote in his diaries: “In economics meeting earlier in the day they didn’t realise CMO [Prof Whitty] was there and CX [Mr Sunak] said, ‘It is all about handling the scientists, not handling the virus’.

“They then got flustered when CMO chipped in later and they realised he had been there all along. PM [Mr Johnson] blustered and waffled for 5 mins to cover his embarrassment.”

Sir Patrick was scathing about the “pure dogma” that emerged from Mr Sunak’s Treasury during the pandemic.

In his diaries he wrote on 26 October 2021, when the government was discussing whether to impose a Plan B of some restrictions stopping short of lockdown as cases were rising again: “Economic predictions! HMT saying economy nearly back to normal + Plan B would cost £18bn. No evidence. No transparency. Pure dogma + wrong throughout.”

Sir Patrick told the inquiry: “I did think that there was a lack of transparency.

“And it was difficult to know exactly what modelling had been done and what input they’d been to various assertions and comments made, and that made it very difficult and of course, it wasn’t publicly available either.

“And that created, I think, an imbalance where the science advice was there for everybody to see.”

It was not only the Treasury but Downing Street who were pushing for a full relaxation of measures after lockdown, the inquiry heard.

Sir Patrick wrote in his diaries that No10 wanted the “science altered” in the run-up to restrictions being lifted in summer 2020. On 19 June he wrote: “No10 pushing hard on releasing measures – including clubs and bars.

“They are pushing very hard and want the science altered. We need to hold on to our hats. There will likely be a second peak.”

Becky Kummar, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, said: “Today was another day of horrific evidence making clear that Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak made catastrophic decisions that led to the unnecessary loss of countless lives, crippled the NHS and plunged the country into even longer lockdowns.

“Our loved ones should have been able to trust that their Government was prioritising saving life, and that’s why so many people believed that EOTHO was safe.

“Instead masses of people almost certainly died because of Rishi Sunak’s callous and reckless attitude, and he also ended up wrecking the country’s economy as we were thrown into months of lockdown to salvage a situation partly created by EOTHO. It was an appalling disaster and is a far bigger scandal than partygate. You’re left asking how anyone can trust Sunak to lead the country if another pandemic struck tomorrow?”

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