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Vallance inquiry evidence shifts Covid spotlight from Johnson to Sunak

Rishi Sunak's decisions on Eat Out To Help Out and other Covid pandemic responses are under fresh scrutiny by the Covid inquiry

When the then chancellor Rishi Sunak announced his Eat Out to Help Out scheme in summer 2020, many viewed it as a much-needed shot in the arm for the economy, particularly the hospitality industry which had been severely battered by the Covid lockdown.

But some scientists, academics and others feared that encouraging people to dine in cafes and restaurants, in close proximity to strangers they had been told to avoid for months, would not only fuel cases of the virus but send a conflicting public health message from the Government.

As it turns out, the most senior experts advising ministers also took the latter view, behind closed doors. Sir Patrick Vallance’s confirmation to the Covid inquiry that the policy was highly likely to be a driver of transmission of the virus is significant, because it is the first time someone from the top of government at the time has publicly stated this assessment.

It also puts renewed pressure on the man who would go on to become Prime Minister, about the decisions he took back in 2020.

In the wake of the month-long scheme, Mr Sunak was asked by Paul Waugh, now i’s chief political commentator, at a daily Downing Street press conference in September 2020 whether he had received any scientific modelling for Eat Out To Help Out, and if he regretted the policy.

Mr Sunak did not confirm whether he had consulted scientists. Yet as Sir Patrick told the inquiry on Monday, the then chancellor did not consult them – and the first he and Chris Whitty knew of the scheme was when it was announced to the media.

At that September 2020 press conference Mr Sunak said: “In terms of the spread of the virus, if you see what’s happening in our country, as you’ve heard from our scientific advisers, we’re following similar paths to other countries in Europe, for example France and Spain. Belgium, we know, has dealt with this before.

“So I think it’s probably simplistic to look at any one thing. What’s happening here is similar to what’s happening in many other countries.”

The inquiry has also heard a quote from Dominic Cummings, cited in Sir Patrick’s diaries, that Mr Sunak “thinks just let people die and that’s okay”.

This is a third-hand account, and we will not know if it is true until the Prime Minister gives his own evidence, under oath, early next month. But the spotlight of the Covid inquiry is shifting from Boris Johnson to the current Prime Minister.

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