Covid Inquiry: Rishi Sunak giving evidence today - what did Prime Minister say about Eat Out To Help Out?

Rishi Sunak will give evidence to the Covid Inquiry on his Eat Out To Help Out scheme, which the government's most senior scientist said was “highly likely” to have fuelled deaths.
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Rishi Sunak has started giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry today over his role as Chancellor during the pandemic.

The now-Prime Minister was notable for rolling out the furlough scheme and bringing in Eat Out To Help Out, which gave people discounts for eating out at their favourite restaurants and pubs. In particular, the latter policy was controversial as it encouraged people to socialise and mix during the midst of the pandemic.

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Messages have revealed that Government scientists referred to him as “Dr Death, the Chancellor” over concerns about his push to keep economic activity going while leading the Treasury during the pandemic. In Parliament during Prime Minister's Questions Sunak denied he said "just let people die” about lifting lockdown restrictions.

Like Boris Johnson, Sunak has been unable to provide a number of WhatsApp messages to the Inquiry. He said he was not told to save his WhatsApp data after Johnson announced the Inquiry, adding: "I have changed phone multiple times in the years since then, and as I've said previously every time that's happened the messages wouldn't have come across. As I said I'm not a prolific user of WhatsApp."

Sunak denied there was a “clash between public health, epidemiological considerations and economic and fiscal issues”. He said: "I think I saw my role as Chancellor of the Exchequer as making sure that the prime minister had the best possible advice, information, analysis relating to the economic impact or consequences of some of the decisions that he was having to make.

"It wasn’t – I didn’t ever describe it as – a clash just between public health and economics. I think that’s to think about it in far too narrow a way."

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The Prime Minister will be questioned later today (11 November) about the "toxic culture" inside No10 Downing Street, as well as the apparent dysfunctional and chaotic nature of Johnson's government. Sunak, who received a fixed-penalty notice for breaking Covid rules, is also likely to be quizzed on his involvement in the Partygate scandal.

Sunak said that he saw Johnson more than his wife during this period of time: "We were working very closely together as I was with my other Cabinet colleagues, and as a general rule I was able to participate in everything that I felt I needed to in order to get the evidence, analysis, to him in a way that he could use it to make decisions."

Rishi Sunak gives a press conference as Chancellor during the Covid pandemic. Credit: JULIAN SIMMONDS/POOL/AFP via Getty ImagesRishi Sunak gives a press conference as Chancellor during the Covid pandemic. Credit: JULIAN SIMMONDS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Rishi Sunak gives a press conference as Chancellor during the Covid pandemic. Credit: JULIAN SIMMONDS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Part of Sunak's written statement was already revealed in Johnson's evidence. The Prime Minister was "frustrated at, as he sees it, over compliance with the stay at home messaging ... exacerbated the economic impact of the lockdown".

Sunak will be grilled by Inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC. This is the second module of the statutory probe, which focuses on the government response to the pandemic.

What time is Rishi Sunak's Covid Inquiry statement today?

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Sunak started giving evidence to the Inquiry from 10.30am today (11 December) and is scheduled to only give evidence for one day. His testimony is shortly after Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock both appeared in the witness stand.

The Eat Out to Help Out scheme aimed to help the hospitality sector during the Covid-19 pandemice. (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)The Eat Out to Help Out scheme aimed to help the hospitality sector during the Covid-19 pandemice. (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)
The Eat Out to Help Out scheme aimed to help the hospitality sector during the Covid-19 pandemice. (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)

Eat Out To Help Out

One of the main lines of questioning is likely to be around Sunak's Eat Out To Help Out scheme. The policy, which was designed to stimulate the economy and promote small businesses, gave participants 50% of food and non-alcoholic drinks.

The Inquiry has already heard how the senior scientists in Westminster had no input into the scheme. Former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told the Covid Inquiry: “I think our advice would have been very clear on that (Eat Out to Help Out)."

He said: "We didn’t see it before it was announced and I think others in the cabinet office also said they didn’t see it before it was formulated as policy. So we weren’t involved in the run up to it. I think it would have been very obvious to anyone that this inevitably would cause an increase in transmission risk, and I think that would have been known by ministers.”

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It is expected Sunak will defend the scheme. On Sunday, Cabinet Minister Michael Gove argued the policy was announced a month before it was implemented and during this time it was “not the case that there was a public critique”.

“It was an effective way of ensuring that the hospitality industry was supported through a very difficult period, and it was entirely within the broad outlines of rules about social mixing that prevailed at the time,” he told Sky’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips programme.

Ralph Blackburn is NationalWorld’s politics editor based in Westminster, where he gets special access to Parliament, MPs and government briefings. If you liked this article you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here and sign up to his free weekly newsletter Politics Uncovered, which brings you the latest analysis and gossip from Westminster every Sunday morning.