Covid Inquiry: Sunak says expert advice ‘not needed’ for Eat Out to Help Out

PM claims top scientific advisers had “ample opportunity” to voice concerns after scheme was announced
Rishi Sunak appears at the Covid Inquiry yesterday

By Jim Dunton

12 Dec 2023

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has claimed that HM Treasury’s controversial Eat Out to Help Out scheme to boost footfall at restaurants after the first pandemic lockdown did not need input from the government’s top scientific advisers before it was announced.

He told the Covid Inquiry yesterday that the promotion – which offered cut-price food for dine-in customers on specific days in August 2020 – had been designed in the context of the “safe lifting” of restrictions designed to stop the spread of Covid that ministers had already signed off.

Sunak, who was chancellor at the time and the main driver of Eat Out to Help Out, said the government-funded scheme did not change any of the guidance that was already in place.

“The overall re-opening of indoor hospitality had already been implemented,” he said. “Eat Out to Help Out was designed to operate within that context, of the safe lifting of NPIs. It didn't do anything further than that.”

Sunak told yesterday afternoon’s inquiry session that he considered Eat Out to Help Out to be a “micro policy” to make sure that capacity in hospitality venues that scientists had already said could be “safely delivered” was actually used.

Government chief medical officer Prof Sir Chris Whitty, former deputy chief medical officer Prof Sir Jonathan Van-Tam and former government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance have all told the inquiry that they were not consulted on Eat Out to Help Out before the policy was announced.

Inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC said all had indicated that if they had been consulted they would have advised that the scheme was highly likely to increase transmission of Covid-19.

He asked Sunak whether he acknowledged that Eat Out to Help Out was an issue that they could have expected to be consulted on, given that it involved bringing people from different households together.

Sunak responded that Whitty, Van-Tam and Vallance had not commented on the situation to him.

“They had ample opportunity to raise those concerns between the announcement of the scheme and its implementation,” he said.

“None of them chose to do so in any fora that they were in.”

Sunak said Eat Out to Help Out had been a “very reasonable, sensible policy intervention” to help safeguard jobs in the hospitality sector as part of a safe programme of reopening after the first lockdown.

“I didn't believe that it was a risk,” he said. “I believed that it was the right thing to do.”

In his written statement to the inquiry former prime minister Boris Johnson said he believed Eat Out to Help Out had been “properly discussed” with Whitty and Vallance before its introduction. Giving evidence in person he acknowledged that this had been an assumption.

At yesterday’s session, Sunak was reminded that Whitty, Vallance and the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies had been involved in the decision to relax the so-called 2m rule for social distancing while Eat Out to Help Out was being developed.

Keith asked why the “risky policy” had not been raised outside of No.10 and HM Treasury before it was announced to Cabinet on 8 July 2020. Sunak suggested there were “market-sensitive” economic policy reasons – rather than public-health reasons – for the decision.

“I wouldn't have discussed the VAT cut on the hospitality sector with the secretary of state for health or the stamp duty cut or the grants,” he said.

Sunak was asked about a WhatsApp message from then-health secretary Matt Hancock to cabinet-secretary-in-waiting Simon Case in late August 2020.

Hancock pleaded with Case for Eat Out to Help Out not to be extended, stating the Department of Health and Social Care had received “lots of feedback” that the scheme was “causing problems in our intervention areas”.

Sunak told yesterday’s session that Hancock had subsequently said there had been “undue focus” on the exchange.

HM Treasury wasn’t “the pro-death squad”

Earlier evidence to the Covid Inquiry has heard current chief scientific adviser Prof Dame Angela McLean described Sunak as “Dr Death” in one WhatsApp message to a colleague in a presumed reference to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

Sunak was not asked about that description, but he was quizzed about a pandemic-time reputation HM Treasury had among No.10 officials as “the pro death squad” because of its opposition to maximum public-health interventions.

“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,” he said.

“Earlier you talked about the people at SAGE being motivated by doing what they thought was best in the public interest, I would say exactly the same about all the people who worked with me at the Treasury, who worked extremely hard throughout the entire period.”

He added: “I'm grateful to them for what they did.”

The inquiry continues.

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