Covid inquiry spotlight turns to Rishi Sunak – and he’s trying to squirm out of it

Rishi Sunak: this little howler pushed up Covid infections massively. If Rishi Sunak didn’t consult scientists before making it happen, he could be in serious trouble with the Covid inquiry. Is that why he’s trying to hide information from that investigation?

Allegations that the government ignored scientific advice during the Covid-19 pandemic have shifted the focus of the inquiry into its actions at that time onto Rishi Sunak and his ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ fiasco.

Here’s the gist:

The article says the inquiry will focus partly on Sunak – particularly over the way the Treasury failed to involve scientists in decisions and the formulation of policy.

Inquiry chair Baroness Hallett has sent questions to then-prime minister Boris Johnson, asking if scientific evidence and opinion was sought before ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ was launched…

which appears not to have been the case.

The Observer article states:

Prof John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who was a member of the Sage committee of advisers to ministers and who has submitted written evidence to the inquiry, said the controversial Eat Out to Help Out scheme – which gave people discounts for eating in restaurants and pubs – was never discussed with scientists.

Eat Out to Help Out was launched in August 2020. It allowed diners to claim 50% off more than 160m meals at a cost to the Treasury of about £850m. In the process, it also drove new Covid-19 infections up by between 8 and 17%, according to a study carried out by Thiemo Fetzer, an economist at the University of Warwick, a few weeks later.

“If we had [been consulted], I would have been clear what I thought about it,” said Edmunds. “As far as I am concerned, it was a spectacularly stupid idea and an obscene way to spend public money.”

That’s interesting, because Sunak himself is on video record as having insisted that he spoke to scientists about ‘Eat Out to Help Out’:

Another critical decision set to be investigated by Hallett was made in September 2020, when the government was urged by Sage to impose a mini-lockdown to dampen rising case numbers, with both Johnson and Sunak opposing the move.

“I said then that the question was either do it now and get on top of the epidemic and keep it under control, or be forced into doing it in a few weeks’ time, by which time the epidemic will be much worse,” Edmunds said.

“There will be many more hospitalisations and deaths, and you will have to take more stringent action. Unfortunately that is exactly what happened.”

Considering the accusations against him, it may be no surprise that Rishi Sunak’s government – through the Cabinet Office, is trying to deny the Covid inquiry access to WhatsApp messages between government ministers.

The claim is that it would be an invasion of privacy to let the inquiry have (for example) all of the WhatsApp messages Boris Johnson sent via his personal phone because they would include “unambiguously irrelevant” material.

But Sunak and the government want to be the arbiters of which material is relevant and which isn’t –

-and that creates a serious credibility problem: why should the organisation under investigation dictate what evidence is permissible or not?

The Cabinet Office – on behalf of Sunak’s government – has launched a judicial review to keep some of the WhatsApps (and other material) away from the inquiry. Apparently this is going to cost you, me and the rest of the UK public a fortune:

(Again: it won’t cost taxpayers’ money – it will cost public money. We then pay tax according to what the Treasury reckons is needed to keep inflation from going through the roof. You can probably tell that the current mob aren’t very good at making that prediction.)

(Oh – and we’re also funding the Covid inquiry, meaning we’re footing the bill for both sides in the dispute.)

But here’s a twist:

… Or is it?

It seems to me that it is actually reasonable to withhold the information on ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ from the Good Law Project – for the time being. The Cabinet Office has said it is handing “all relevant material to the Covid Inquiry – and ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ is definitely relevant to the Covid inquiry.

The claim – by the Cabinet Office – is that it has given all relevant information to the inquiry, so we would be justified in expecting the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ stuff to have gone there already.

Refusing to hand other information to the inquiry on grounds that it is not relevant does not contradict this claim.

But it makes the result of the judicial inquiry all the more important.

Because if the government wins in court, but doesn’t hand over information about ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ over to the inquiry, it will have no excuse not to hand it over to the Good Law Project.


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