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“At all steps in this [pandemic] we have taken the advice of our scientific advisers”, Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons back in April 2021.
We now know this wasn’t true. According to testimony this week from the Government’s former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, and the current Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, we now know that far from “following the science” the Prime Minister actively avoided it.
According to both men, Sunak failed to seek any scientific advice before launching his controversial ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme in the summer of 2020.
“There was no consultation”, Whitty told the Inquiry.
“Neither Patrick nor I can recall it and I think we would have done”.
Sunak’s scheme, which sought to encourage millions of people to visit restaurants in the middle of a global pandemic at a time when there was no working vaccines, was linked to a subsequent spike in infections.
That this would be the case was obvious. Encouraging people into close physical contact during the outbreak of a deadly virus was obviously never going to end well.
Yet the scientists were not asked, for the simple reason that the then Chancellor appeared not to want the answer he would have been given.
Indeed, avoiding such advice appeared to be a priority for Sunak. According to Vallance, the former Chancellor told one meeting during the pandemic that his real priority was “handling the scientists, not handling the virus”.
In other words he was more concerned with managing those trying to tell him the truth about the virus than managing the virus itself. This was, in the view of Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings, because “Rishi thinks just let people die and that’s okay.”
While this may be an exaggeration of Sunak’s motivations at the time, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this was essentially the position the Government took in the early months of the crisis.
Like Sunak, Johnson also reportedly expressed his desire for the virus to be allowed to “let rip” through the population.
In records unearthed by the Inquiry, officials recall that Johnson believed that the country was being “pathetic” about Covid and should just have “a cold shower” and get over it. In one exchange he is recorded as sympathising with the idea that the virus was simply “nature’s way of dealing with old people”.
Yet while there are few people who will still be surprised by Johnson’s comments, the revelations about his successor are in some ways more troubling.
When Sunak belatedly called for Johnson’s resignation last year he claimed to be doing so because “the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously”, adding that “I believe these standards are worth fighting for”.
Unfortunately everything we have seen since suggests that far from wanting to “fight” for these standards, as he suggested, Sunak was actually as content for them to be disregarded as his predecessor.
This can be seen not just in his behaviour during the pandemic, but also in his behaviour since. His decision to hire Suella Braverman just days after she was sacked for breaking the ministerial code, was an early and crucial sign that his commitment to “professionalism, integrity and accountability” was not what it first appeared.
His subsequent appointment of David Cameron, whose ties to China and previous business interests are already been covered up by Sunak’s Government is further proof of quite how unattached to proper standards the Prime Minister really is.
Yet it is his behaviour during Covid which should trouble us the most.
Throughout the pandemic Sunak and Johnson insisted they were “following the science” on Covid.
As Vallance pointed out this week, this claim was not only untrue but also potentially harmful.
At the start of the pandemic scientists were unsure about exactly how virulent the virus would prove to be. As such there was no single “science” which the Government could follow. What there was instead was a growing body of evidence and some reasonable scientific inferences that could be drawn from that evidence.
The job of the Government’s scientific advisers was not to tell ministers what “the science” was to be followed, but to simply inform them what the evidence was and then allow them to make their own political decisions based on that evidence.
As Vallance said this week, what Johnson’s Government did instead was to “hide” behind the scientists and use them as justifications for doing what they wanted to do anyway.
The problem was that this was not always possible, as Sunak inadvertently revealed with his frustration at being unable to “handle the scientists”.
This was particularly exposed by the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
It was obviously the case that encouraging people into hospitality settings during a pandemic was going to be in conflict with any scientific advice the Government might have sought at the time.
One way to deal with this might have been for Sunak to say that while the scheme risked increasing infections, it was still justified for economic reasons. Yet instead of being honest about that, Sunak and Johnson simply refused to seek any advice and pretended that there were no risks involved at all.
Thanks to the Inquiry we now know that the Government’s mantra that it was “following the science” was not only untrue, but harmful.
Far from following the science on Covid, the Prime Minister and his predecessor actively avoided it.