The Eat Out to Help Out discount hospitality scheme helped protect workers from the “devastating consequences” of job losses, British prime minister Rishi Sunak has told the UK’s Covid-19 inquiry.
The scheme was introduced by the P prime minister, when he was chancellor during the pandemic, in summer 2020, in a bid to support the hard-hit hospitality sector as the UK emerged from coronavirus restrictions imposed during the first lockdown.
The policy has been heavily scrutinised by the inquiry, with questions about whether scientists were consulted about the plan and whether it contributed to the spread of infection.
Giving evidence to the inquiry on Monday, Mr Sunak said he still believed Eat Out to Help Out had been the “right thing to do to protect” what he said were “millions” of jobs held by “particularly vulnerable people”.
He said: “All the data, all the evidence, all the polling, all the input from those companies suggested that unless we did something, many of those jobs would have been at risk with devastating consequences for those people and their families.”
The plan formed part of Mr Sunak’s summer economic update on July 8th, 2020, and provided 50 per cent off the cost of food and/or non-alcoholic drinks.
The announcement blindsided both key scientific advisers and Mr Sunak’s then cabinet colleagues, including former health secretary Matt Hancock, who said the first they knew of it was when it was made public.
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, previously told the inquiry the scheme was “highly likely” to have fuelled deaths.
Questioned by lead counsel Hugo Keith about the scheme, Mr Sunak said such concerns were not raised with him despite there being a one month gap between it being announced and the discount coming into effect.
He said there had been “ample opportunity” for people to raise concerns with him or then prime minister Boris Johnson during that period.
Mr Sunak said the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was a “micro policy” within the overall reopening plan after the first lockdown, with indoor hospitality “already” open again under “Covid secure guidance”, which included table service-only, contactless ordering and one-way systems.
He added: “This was a very reasonable, sensible policy intervention to help safeguard those jobs in that safe reopening. That was my view.
“I didn’t believe that it was a risk. I believe it was the right thing to do.
“But if others are suggesting that they didn’t, they had ample opportunity to raise those concerns in forums where I was there, or where the prime minister or others were, and they didn’t.”
The Conservative Party leader rejected claims that the treasury was the “pro-death squad” for looking to protect the economy during Covid.
Messages have revealed that government scientists referred to Mr Sunak as “Dr Death, the Chancellor” over concerns about his push to keep economic activity going while leading the treasury during the pandemic.
Asked by Mr Keith whether he was aware of his former department being called the “pro-death squad” by some No 10 officials, Mr Sunak said: “I wasn’t and I do not think it is a fair characterisation on the incredibly hard working people that I was lucky to be supported by at the treasury.”
The prime minister told the inquiry it was correct that he had argued for non-essential retail to remain open during the November lockdown in England as the scientific evidence suggested it “doesn’t have any impact” on the R rate used to measure the virus.
The then prime minister, Boris Johnson, rejected the call, however.
Earlier in his evidence session, Mr Sunak defended Government decision-making during the Covid crisis, saying ministers were “following advice from the scientists”.
The prime minister said Mr Johnson’s administration acted “almost immediately” on the recommendations from scientific experts when it came to imposing restrictions.
Giving evidence to Baroness Hallett’s inquiry in west London, Mr Sunak said the goal had not been to totally suppress the virus but to ensure the NHS was not overwhelmed with cases.
Mr Sunak said that as the advice changed during March 2020 in the lead-up to the first lockdown, ministers responded with fresh announcements.
“My strong recollection from this period is that the government acted, I think almost immediately, on the recommendations from Sage,” he told the inquiry.
He opened the all-day session by telling bereaved families that he was “deeply sorry” for the losses they experienced during the pandemic.
But Mr Sunak took a different tack to previous witnesses who have appeared before the inquiry by refusing to issue any overt criticism of the decision-making in Mr Johnson’s administration.
Mr Johnson had been prime minister during the pandemic but was ousted from No 10 last year.
Mr Sunak said his interactions with Downing Street during the crisis “felt fine” and stated that he was not “shut out” of key meetings – a complaint made by Mr Hancock.
He defended the pandemic response by Mr Johnson as he pushed back against claims heard by the inquiry that the former prime minister presided over “operational inefficiency”.
Mr Sunak said he was not advised that he should save WhatsApp messages from his phone, even after the UK Covid inquiry was set up, and he has no messages remaining from the pandemic period.
He said he had changed his phone many times in recent years and never backed up his messages, a relatively straightforward process that many users do routinely.
Mr Sunak also told the inquiry he could not recall details about the meetings in which the first lockdown was decided, or how much scrutiny was given to concerns that the National Health Service could be overwhelmed.
Asked by Hugo Keith KC, the main inquiry counsel, about the missing messages, Mr Sunak said: “I’ve changed my phone multiple times over the past few years, and as that has happened the messages have not come across.
“As you said, I’m not a prolific user of WhatsApp in the first instance, primarily communications with my private office, and obviously anything that was of significance through those conversations or exchanges has been recorded officially by my civil servants as one would expect.”
Asked if he had been advised that he should try to save messages, especially after Boris Johnson formally established the Covid inquiry in May 2021, Mr Sunak said: “I don’t recall anyone in my office making that recommendation or observation to me at the time.”
Last week, Mr Johnson confirmed to the inquiry that he had been unable to retrieve his own WhatsApp message for a crucial period at the start of the crisis, saying this appeared to be because his phone had been reset. - PA. Additional reporting: Guardian.