The former chancellor opens up about his government's failings
Rishi Sunak, at the time of the pandemic the Chancellor and second-most powerful member of the UK government, has revealed the dysfunctional and unquestioning atmosphere at the heart of government on Covid policy.
In an interview with The Spectator magazine, the prime ministerial hopeful says the ‘fear’ narrative set in motion at the outset of the pandemic via government messaging was “always wrong,” and that he said so internally at the time.
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“It was wrong to scare people like that,” he said. “I constantly said it was wrong.” Among the worst elements of this public fear campaign, he suggests, were posters branded with the NHS logo and depicting Covid patients on ventilators.
He went on to question the idea that the public were fundamentally supportive of lockdown measures (in March 2020, polling suggested that 92% of the public were behind the policy). Sunak says that the government scared the public into this mindset: “We helped shape that: with the fear messaging, empowering the scientists and not talking about the trade-offs.”
Central to his criticism of the government he was previously a core part of is the claim that he was frustrated in his desire to investigate the long-term trade-offs implicit in lockdown policy.
“I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-offs” Sunak claims. If the media asked ministers to talk about potential side-effects of lockdown “the script was not to ever acknowledge them. The script was: oh there’s no trade-off, because doing this for our health is good for the economy,” he now says.
When presented with the scientific modelling, Sunak – who resigned as Chancellor in early July – asked for a cost-benefit analysis of various scenarios: “I was like: ‘Summarise for me the key assumptions, on one page, with a bunch of sensitivities and rationale for each one.” But the analysis never arrived. “In the first year I could never get this,” he said.
In conversations inside government it “felt like no one talked… we didn’t talk about all the missed [doctor’s] appointments, or the backlog building in the NHS in a massive way. That was never part of it.” Meetings where he attempted to argue back “were literally [only me] around that table, just fighting. It was incredibly uncomfortable every single time.”
One instance he recalls was about children: “I was very emotional about it. I was like: ‘Forget about the economy. Surely we can all agree that kids not being in school is a major nightmare” or something like that. There was a big silence afterwards. It was the first time someone had said it. I was so furious.”
In a Covid context, he felt that scientific advisors had become overly powerful in the policy making process. “This is the problem,” he said. “If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed.”
Sunak summarises the mistakes of the pandemic as follows: “We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did. And you have to acknowledge trade-offs from the beginning. If we’d done all of that we could be in a very different place.”
An inquiry has been set up to examine and investigate the UK’s response to Covid-19.