Eating out and Partygate: Covid inquiry questions Sunak should prepare for

It is Rishi Sunak’s turn on Monday to spend the day being questioned at the Covid inquiry, with the prime minister expected to spend some of the weekend working in Downing Street being briefed on what to expect. He will give evidence about his job as chancellor during the crisis. Here are some of things he might be asked.

Did he get scientific advice about his flagship Covid scheme?

Sunak’s name has come up most often thus far in relation to his role as creator of “eat out to help out”, the £850m scheme in summer 2020 to incentivise people to go to cafes and restaurants, which the inquiry has heard alarmed scientists both because of the potential impact on infection rates and because of the implicit message it sent.

But we have also learned that Sunak’s Treasury devised the scheme almost singlehandedly, with scientific advisers and even the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, left “blindsided” when it was announced.

Even Boris Johnson, who had known about the scheme in advance, said he had assumed it had been cleared by scientists and was surprised to learn it was not.

Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, referred to the scheme as “eat out to help the virus”, the inquiry has heard. Unless Sunak can show evidence of consultation, he perhaps has some explaining to do.

Did Sunak attempt to mislead the inquiry over this?

Witnesses give their written statements long before they appear in person, but they are not published until after their testimony. We have had one snippet so far of Sunak’s statement, which said he did “not recall any concerns” about eat out to help out being raised in meetings, including ones attended by Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser at the height of the crisis.

This extract was read out to Vallance, who politely but clearly contradicted it, saying he would be “very surprised” if ministers at the time, Sunak included, had not been warned that the scheme was risky.

Was ‘Dr Death the chancellor’ too gung ho about opening up?

Sunak’s many cameos in the evidence and recollections of earlier witnesses have often been along this theme: him being presented as a minister set on opening up the economy at all costs, irrespective of the impact on infection rates.

The moniker “Dr Death the chancellor” was used in a private message by Prof Angela McLean, who has since replaced Vallance as chief scientific adviser. Johnson was recorded referring to Sunak’s Treasury as “the pro-death squad”, while Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former senior aide, summarised Sunak’s general view at the time as “just let people die and that’s OK”.

A particularly eye-opening extract from Vallance’s diary recounted Sunak telling a virtual meeting on economics that his job was “all about handling the scientists, not handling the virus”.

What did he know of the toxic atmosphere inside No 10?

Arguably the most resonant testimony of the current inquiry module, which covers deliberations at the top of government, has been the repeated depiction of Johnson’s No 10 as a toxic, verbally abusive and sometimes misogynistic nest of battling egos, with Cummings not least among them.

While the gossipy details of who Cummings did or did not call a “useless fuckpig” might be incidental, the inquiry chair, Heather Hallett, will take a close interest in whether this atmosphere made for worse decisions, something that seems to have been the case whatever Johnson’s insistence about the dividends of a “disputatious culture”.

It is this latter element on which Sunak might be questioned: did he realise what was happening inside No 10, and if so, did he try to do something about it?

What did he know about parties?

One of the most uncomfortable parts of Johnson’s evidence was his protestation that lockdown-breaking parties, which led to 126 fines, had been exaggerated in the media and were largely a product of people trying to work hard.

While Sunak was one of those fined, the teetotal then chancellor was never seen as central to this culture. But as with the wider work atmosphere, there are questions he could face. He literally lived in the same building. Did he notice, and if so, did he care?


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