No.10 should have consulted scientific advisers on the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, Sir Chris Whitty has said.
Giving evidence for the second day in a row at the Covid Inquiry, the chief medical officer said he “firmly” told Downing Street that it “would have been prudent” to have consulted then-government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and himself on the scheme before it was launched.
The Eat Out To Help Out scheme offered the public 50% discounts on food consumed at participating venues on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August 2020.
Boris Johnson said in his witness statement to the inquiry that the policy “was properly discussed, including with Chris [Whitty] and Patrick [Vallance]”. Asked by Hugo Keith KC if he agreed with that comment, Whitty said: “On this one, neither Patrick nor I can recall [having been consulted] and I think we would have done.”
He added: “And I made fairly firmly to No.10, not to the prime minister, the view that it would have been prudent, let's put it that way, for them to have talked about discussing it before it was launched. And this was aimed at the centre.
"I was unsurprised that Treasury and many other ministries were coming up with various schemes. That's perfectly legitimate. No.10 held the ring... So it may well be correct that the prime minister was under the impression we had been consulted, but it was not the fact that we were consulted in that and that difference I think is probably worth highlighting. And I think we should have been.”
Vallance told the inquiry on Monday that neither he nor SAGE was told of the scheme prior to its announcement but that it should have been obvious that the scheme would increase the rate of infections.
“I think up to that point the message had been very clear, which is: interaction between different households and people that you weren't living with in an enclosed environment with many others was a high risk activity,” Vallance said. “That policy completely reversed it to saying: 'We will pay you to go into an environment with people from other households and mix in an indoor environment for periods extended over a couple of hours or more'. And that is a completely opposite public health message as a result of that.”
In Rishi Sunak’s witness statement to the inquiry, the prime minister – who was chancellor during the pandemic – said: "Throughout the period at which [Eat Out to Help Out] was in operation, and immediately prior to its implementation, I do not recall any concerns about the scheme being expressed during ministerial discussions, including those attended by the CMO and CSA."
Asked by Keith about this statement, Vallance said: “I think it would have been very obvious to anyone that this was likely to cause – well, inevitably would cause an increase in transmission risk, and I think that would have been known by ministers.”
Vallance said he and colleagues would have advised this “had we been asked beforehand”.
Ex-Covid Taskforce chief Simon Ridley also revealed earlier this month that the taskforce was not consulted on the scheme despite being created to be a single body in government for policy and strategy related to the virus.