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Rishi Sunak to be quizzed on Eat Out scheme and lockdowns at Covid inquiry

Then-chancellor Rishi Sunak introduced the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme (Jeff J Mitchell/PA)
Then-chancellor Rishi Sunak introduced the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme (Jeff J Mitchell/PA)

Rishi Sunak will face allegations his Eat Out to Help Out scheme fuelled the spread of coronavirus when he appears at the Covid inquiry on Monday.

The Prime Minister is expected to be grilled on whether he believed scientists were handed too much power and if insufficient consideration was given to the impact of lockdowns.

His questioning by lead counsel Hugo Keith KC in west London on Monday morning will kick off a crucial week for Mr Sunak as he faces a crunch vote on his Rwanda legislation on Tuesday.

Messages have revealed that Government scientists referred to him as “Dr Death, the Chancellor” over concerns about his push to keep economic activity going while leading the Treasury during the pandemic.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove defended Mr Sunak on Sunday, arguing there was no “public critique” of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme before its launch in August 2020.

But Professor Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, is said to have privately referred to the scheme to boost the restaurant industry as “eat out to help out the virus”.

Sir Patrick Vallance, who was chief scientific adviser, said he and Sir Chris could not recall being consulted in advance about the scheme that cost hundreds of millions of pounds.

Giving evidence to Baroness Hallett’s inquiry, Sir Patrick said the scheme was “highly likely” to have fuelled deaths.

Mr Gove argued the policy was announced a month before it was implemented and during this time it was “not the case that there was a public critique”.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson arrives to give evidence for a second day to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry
Former prime minister Boris Johnson arrives to give evidence for a second day to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry (Jonathan Brady/PA)

“It was an effective way of ensuring that the hospitality industry was supported through a very difficult period, and it was entirely within the broad outlines of rules about social mixing that prevailed at the time,” he told Sky’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips programme.

The plan formed part of Mr Sunak’s summer economic update on July 8 2020, and provided 50% off the cost of food and/or non-alcoholic drinks.

Former deputy chief medical officer Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam said the scheme “didn’t feel sensible” because it was encouraging exactly what officials had been trying to stop in previous months.

One of Sir Patrick’s diary entries recorded Dominic Cummings, who was Boris Johnson’s chief adviser in Downing Street at the time, saying Mr Sunak “thinks just let people die and that’s OK”.

It is understood that the inquiry has shared with its core participants an interview Mr Sunak did with the Spectator magazine in August last year.

In it, Mr Sunak claimed he “wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off” between the economic and social impacts of lockdowns and their benefits to suppressing the virus.

He discussed the “problem” of handing power to scientists, adding: “If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed.”

Mr Sunak may also face questions over his WhatsApp messages, or lack of them.

He has reportedly told the inquiry that “having changed my phone a number of times over the last three years” he no longer has access.

Lawyers representing bereaved families from the four UK nations will also question Mr Sunak, as will long Covid groups and the Trades Union Congress.

The union’s assistant general secretary Kate Bell said: “The Prime Minister must come clean about why these decisions were taken – especially when senior government advisers were warning that people couldn’t afford to stay home when sick.

“The failure to provide proper financial support was an act of self-sabotage that left millions brutally exposed to the pandemic.”