LONDON — Rishi Sunak’s flagship scheme to reopen the British economy during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic is “highly likely” to have led to increased deaths, the U.K. government’s former top scientist told the official COVID inquiry Monday.
Patrick Vallance — chief scientific adviser to the government during the pandemic — made clear his deep disagreement with the “Eat Out to Help Out” discount devised by Sunak’s Treasury to get people back into restaurants in summer 2020.
It’s the latest awkward testimony for Sunak, the former chancellor who became U.K. prime minister late last year. He has so far seen much of the inquiry’s spotlight fall on his predecessor Boris Johnson.
A short extract of Sunak’s written submission to the inquiry was displayed at the probe Monday. In it, Sunak — who will face the inquiry in the next two weeks — said he did “not recall any concerns about the scheme being expressed” by ministers or advisers about the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme.
But Vallance said neither he or the government’s science advisory board were briefed on the scheme until it was announced — and had not been asked for their advice about its potential to increase the spread of the still-raging coronavirus.
“It would have been very obvious to anyone that this would inevitably cause an increase in transmission risk, and I think that would have been obvious to ministers,” Vallance told the inquiry.
Asked whether the scheme increased the number of Brits who died from the virus, Vallance replied that it was “highly likely to have done so.”
It was not the only dig at Sunak’s Treasury during Monday’s evidence, which also saw new extracts of Vallance’s contemporaneous diary disclosed.
In one extract, the top finance department was accused of using “pure dogma” and scant evidence to argue against restrictions to deal with a resurgence of COVID cases in October 2021.
In another newly-published diary extract, Vallance referred to a tense meeting between senior ministers, advisers and Boris Johnson in October 2020 as debate raged about whether or not to plunge Britain into a fresh lockdown.
According to the extract, Johnson — who will be grilled by the inquiry in the coming weeks — argued for “letting [the virus] rip,” and said that without a new lockdown “there will be more casualties, but so be it — they have had a good innings.”
In the same diary entry, Vallance cited ex-Johnson aide Dominic Cummings as believing “Rishi thinks just let people die and that’s okay.” Pressed on this entry, Vallance told the inquiry he did not hear Sunak say this.
No. 10 Downing Street declined to comment on the Monday’s claims directly. A Downing Street spokesman said: “The prime minister is due to give evidence before the inquiry at the time of their choosing. That’s when he’ll set out his position.”