Rishi Sunak has faced a six-hour grilling at the Covid inquiry as part of a pivotal week for his premiership. The Prime Minister was questioned extensively about his role as chancellor during the pandemic, particularly his stance on lockdowns and the controversial Eat Out To Help Out scheme. In addition, Mr Sunak became visibly upset as he fought back against criticism of his approach to the pandemic, emphasizing that he had prioritized protecting jobs and the economy. Here’s a breakdown of some key claims made during his appearance at the inquiry.
**Eat Out To Help Out was not responsible for a second Covid wave**
During his appearance at the Covid inquiry, Rishi Sunak defended his controversial Eat Out To Help Out policy, describing it as a “micro policy” within the broader plan to reopen the country post-lockdown. The initiative, which was introduced in August 2020, was aimed at saving jobs and was launched after the “safe reopening” of pubs and restaurants, according to the Prime Minister. Despite concerns raised by government scientists about the scheme potentially increasing Covid transmission, Mr Sunak maintained that it was not responsible for a second wave. He pointed to the fact that other countries in Europe experienced similar spikes in cases despite not having similar eating out schemes. While a study from the University of Warwick suggested that the scheme drove new Covid infections up by 8-17%, the Prime Minister highlighted that the rise in cases coincided with the return of children to school and the spread of the Alpha variant.
**WhatsApp messages disappeared when he changed his phone**
Mr Sunak faced questioning about the disappearance of his WhatsApp messages from the pandemic, attributing it to changing his phone multiple times in recent years. He emphasized that WhatsApp was primarily used for communicating with his private office and that important conversations would have been officially recorded by his civil servants. However, it is worth noting that mobile phone owners can easily back up WhatsApp chats before moving to a new device, a process that involves straightforward measures outlined by the WhatsApp website. The Prime Minister also stated that he did not recall anyone in his office making a recommendation for him to retain his WhatsApp messages, echoing similar controversy surrounding the missing WhatsApp messages of then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
**He wasn’t allowed to talk about lockdown impacts**
A previous claim made by Rishi Sunak about being restricted from discussing the economic and health trade-offs of lockdowns sparked further scrutiny during the inquiry. In a 2022 article, he suggested that the script was not to acknowledge the trade-offs amid discussions within the government. However, during his appearance at the inquiry, Mr Sunak clarified that he was referring to the communication strategy rather than discussions happening within the government. He expressed understanding for the simplified communication strategy adopted during an unprecedented situation, emphasizing the need for simplicity to ensure compliance and public cooperation.
**Gilt market failure meant UK risked not being able to pay for Covid measures**
In his testimony, Rishi Sunak revealed that there was substantial concern within the Treasury regarding the government’s ability to fund its pandemic response following a failed gilt auction in March 2020. The Prime Minister highlighted a significant move in gilt rates, which led to a tripling of government borrowing costs within a week and an unsuccessful auction two days later. While this event did create “enormous anxiety” within the Treasury, experts in the market opined that it did not suggest Britain was facing a funding crisis. They emphasized that historically low interest rates and consistently oversubscribed gilt auctions indicated the government’s ability to finance itself. Despite the temporary spike in borrowing, economists did not view it as an immediate concern for the sustainability of public finances.
While Rishi Sunak’s testimony at the Covid inquiry shed light on various controversial aspects of his pandemic response, it also raised further questions and potential areas of investigation. As the inquiry continues, the scrutiny surrounding the Prime Minister’s decisions and policies during the pandemic will undoubtedly remain a topic of significant public interest.
In summary, Rishi Sunak’s appearance at the Covid inquiry provided insights into his decision-making and communication strategies during an unprecedented crisis. However, the testimony has also sparked further questions and controversies, underscoring the complexity of managing a pandemic and its economic impact. As the inquiry unfolds, it is clear that the scrutiny and evaluation of the government’s pandemic response will continue to shape public discourse and policy considerations.