Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak introduced the controversial Eat Out to Help Out scheme to encourage the public back to restaurants and cafés without the involvement of the Covid Taskforce, scientists or an impact assessment, it has emerged.
The Covid Inquiry heard yesterday that although the taskforce – which was based in the Cabinet Office – had been created to be a single body in government for policy and strategy related to Covid, the then-PM and chancellor cooked up Eat Out to Help Out behind its back.
Simon Ridley, who was head of the Covid Taskforce from May 2020 to March 2022, told the inquiry that the taskforce had been looking at strategies to cope with the anticipated second wave of the pandemic in the summer of 2020 when plans for Eat Out to Help Out were formally made public.
He said the scheme, which offered the public 50% discounts on food consumed on-site at participating venues on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August 2020, had not been presented to the taskforce for evaluation or comment before it was announced.
“The Eat Out to Help Out scheme didn’t come through me or the taskforce; it was decided by the prime minister and the chancellor, as far as I’m aware,” Ridley said.
He confirmed that Johnson and Sunak did not ask for the taskforce’s advice on the proposals, or seek comments on the scheme’s merits.
Inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC asked Ridley what his reaction had been when he first learned of the scheme, which is widely seen as Sunak's brainchild.
Ridley said he could not remember his initial response. He said the team had simply needed to “internalise” Eat Out to Help Out as government policy, and acknowledge its place alongside other decisions related to the pandemic.
“I don’t recall that there was, at that point, a prediction of the impact of it over the next few weeks,” he said. “But it obviously factored into future advice.”
Keith suggested that Ridley and his team must have been “extraordinarily concerned” that a major plank of the government’s strategy had not been brought to them for their views.
“Things happen that surprise,” Ridley replied. “This was announced as government policy. I didn’t spend time worrying about the whys and wherefores of that.”
Keith said Ridley and the Covid Taskforce had been “effectively completely blindsided” by HM Treasury and there was nothing that could be done.
Ridley responded: “Correct.”
No scientific input
The inquiry heard last month heard that government chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty had described Eat Out to Help Out as “Eat Out to Help the virus out” because of its likely impact on accelerating transmission.
Another session heard that then-health secretary Matt Hancock had begged future cabinet secretary Simon Case to oppose any extension of the scheme because of the “serious” effect on health services that was was becoming apparent to the Department of Health and Social Care by late August 2020.
On Monday Stuart Glassborow, who was deputy principal private secretary to Johnson, said he had first become aware of the scheme at a meeting on 2 July.
Asked if there was any awareness in No.10 that there had been no scientific analysis of the impact the scheme could have on the spread of Covid, Glassborow said: “I don't recall whether that was discussed in that meeting.”
But he said officials in No.10 became aware of the absence of scientific input before the scheme launched in August.
“I think I and others in No.10 did become aware that there hadn't been direct CMO, CSA, SAGE analysis or advice on this policy,” he said.
Counsel to the inquiry Dermot Keating asked if a view had been taken that the scheme would be going ahead in any event.
Glassborow said: “I don't recall significant representations being made to, in some sense, revisit the policy.”
Earlier in the day, former chief economic adviser to the Treasury Clare Lombardelli was asked if the risk that Eat Out to Help Out could increase infections had been considered.
She said she did not know but added: “The policy was conceived in the context that, you know, it was safe to lift restrictions and activity could return.”
The inquiry continues.