The Government is trying to block the COVID Inquiry from accessing unredacted WhatsApp messages that could reveal how Rishi Sunak ignored scientific advice and launched the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme in 2020, which caused a surge in infections.
T he Official Inquiry into the government’s handling of the COVID pandemic will probably go the same way as other official inquiries into the British Government’s handling of other important issues.
It will be characterised by arse-covering, blame-shifting, deflection, pathetic excuses, the scapegoating of minor players, and then nothing much of any significance will change, the only lessons that the British Government ever learns are that no matter what happens it is never the fault of those in charge.
In any event, the Inquiry will drag on for years and by the time it publishes its invariably underwhelming conclusions the lead players will already have placed themselves beyond any semblance of democratic accountability and their cronies will have rewarded them for their services to failure and self-promotion with a nice cosy seat in the House of Lords.
However public inquiries do have the potential to cause political embarrassment while they are going on and when the politician who is the object of that embarrassment is already weak and beleaguered that can prove very damaging to the ego fuelled self-promotion which is what passes for a British ministerial career these days.
Currently, Rishi Sunak is going through extraordinary contortions in order to prevent retired senior judge Baroness Hallett, chair of the COVID Inquiry, from accessing all the information that she requires to conduct a thorough inquiry. What the Government’s position boils down to is that it will decide what information is or is not relevant to the Inquiry. This is the Government, let us not forget, whose actions and behaviour are the topic of the Inquiry. It’s a bit like a murder suspect telling the police that it’s up to the suspect, not the police, to decide what evidence is relevant to the police investigation.
Despite the usual Tory nodding donkeys being trotted out around the television studios on Sunday to assure the public that the decision to take legal action to prevent the Inquiry from having access to unredacted WhatsApp messages between ministers and officials while the official response to the pandemic was being framed is entirely legitimate and above board, there is no precedent for a government seeking to thwart a request for evidence from an official inquiry that the government itself set up.
It is widely expected, even by senior Tories, that the Government will lose its attempt to prevent the information from being handed over. The Inquiry was given a very broad remit by the same Government that is now saying: “Oh but when we said we’d be totally transparent we didn’t mean THAT transparent.”
The Government can only be taking this step because it fears that the information being sought by the Inquiry is political dynamite. That can be the only explanation for taking legal action which most observers believe has little chance of succeeding, and which is causing political embarrassment by the mere act of initiating it. Sunak clearly feels that the small chance of blocking the Inquiry from seeing the information and weathering the criticism that the legal action provokes is far better for him than allowing the information to come out.
Rishi Sunak helping to advertise ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ by putting up stickers in participating restaurants and cafes in Northallerton. | CREDIT: FLICKR/HM TREASURY
Boris Johnson is heaping the embarrassment upon Sunak by voluntarily handing over his own WhatsApp messages to the Inquiry. Johnson will most likely receive huge criticism from the Inquiry for his chaotic and shambolic handling of the pandemic, but politically Johnson has little left to lose. He’s out of office and has more immediate problems in the shape of the Commons investigation into whether he misled Parliament, the verdict of which has the potential to end his political career and finally put an end to his diminishing hopes of a triumphant return.
Right now Boris Johnson is more interested in settling scores with Sunak, and he almost certainly knows just how damaging the contents of those WhatsApp messages could be to his former Chancellor. Sunak was directly responsible for the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, encouraging people to dine out at restaurants even though there was a significant risk of spreading the coronavirus The scheme was blamed for a sharp rise in COVID infections. The scheme was panned by Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who was a member of the Sage committee of advisers to ministers as “spectacularly stupid.”
The scheme allowed diners to claim a 50% discount on meals when it was launched in August 2020, before the widespread rollout of effective vaccines. It cost the public purse £850 million and one study found that it was responsible for an 8 to 17% rise in COVID infections.
During the pandemic, the Conservatives repeatedly insisted that its response to the spread of the virus was “led by the scientific evidence.” That was a lie, and those WhatsApp messages will prove it in embarrassing and damning detail. Professor Edmunds insists that Sunak’s pet project was never discussed with the scientists who were supposedly advising the government. Speaking to the Observer newspaper Professor Edmunds said: “If we had [been consulted], I would have been clear what I thought about it. As far as I am concerned, it was a spectacularly stupid idea and an obscene way to spend public money.”
Edmunds dismissed the Government’s repeated claim that it “followed the science” when setting a policy to tackle the pandemic as “nonsense.”
The president of the British Medical Association, Professor Martin McKee, also criticised the “dysfunctional” way in which the Treasury under Sunak overlooked scientific advice throughout the pandemic. It wasn’t just the scientists that Sunak did not consult with. According to reports he did not consult with his cabinet colleagues either. The biographer and Conservative historian Anthony Seldon claims in his book ‘Johnson at 10: The Inside Story’ that the then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock only found out about Sunak’s pet scheme when he read about it in a press release.
This is why Sunak is so afraid of letting the COVID Inquiry see all the evidence. He has always claimed that he was the grown-up in the room and upon entering Downing Street vowed to restore integrity, professionalism and accountability to the government. These WhatsApp messages will show that he was just as cavalier and reckless as Johnson and had an equal disregard for the consequences of his decisions on the public. All Sunak cared about was getting himself in the spotlight and furthering his rampant ambition.
▪ Text: This piece was originally published in Wee Ginger Dug and re-published in PMP Magazine on 6 June 2023, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
▪ Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - Rishi Sunak. | 5 June 2023. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)