Rishi Sunak slams UK Covid lockdowns ‘fear story’

LONDON: Former Chancellor Rishi Sunakrunner-up in the race to succeed Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party and British prime minister, spoke candidly on Thursday against the “fear narrative” and partial analyzes behind the country’s Covid shutdowns.
The 42-year-old former minister who was in charge at 11 Downing Street at the time revealed behind the scenes of the corridors of power for the first time in an interview with ‘The Spectator’. Although he does not claim the lockdown was a mistake, Sunak reveals his many concerns, a lack of proper consideration of the trade-offs involved in the full lockdown of society and the suppression of dissenting opinions in government.
“In every brief, we tried to say, let’s stop the ‘fear’ narrative. It was always wrong from the start. I was constantly saying it was wrong,” he told the magazine’s editor.
Sunak also criticized public health posters put up across the country at the time showing Covid patients on ventilators because “it was wrong to scare people like that”.
The British Indian Conservative MP for Richmond in Yorkshire, who will face the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in the race for the leadership of the party, reiterated that his intention to speak now was not to blame and name anyone in particular, but to stress the importance of learning from the decisions that have been taken during 2020 and 2021.
As finance minister between February 2020 and July 2022, Sunak was the man in charge of the economic response and says ministers have not been given enough information to review the analysis produced by the Scientific Advisory Group for les urgences (Sage) – a group of independent experts advising the government on Covid-related measures.
“We shouldn’t have held scientists accountable like we did. And you have to recognize the trade-offs early on. If we had done all of that, we could have been in a very different place… We probably would have made different decisions on things like schools, for example,” he said.
Sunak claims to have been among the few dissenting voices within Johnson’s cabinet at the time and eventually began to turn to broader analysis – including from his alma mater Stanford University and JP Morgan research data – to clarify their own opinions.
“I was not allowed to talk about the compromise,” he reveals, adding that ministers would have been briefed by No 10 Downing on how to deal with questions about the side effects of the lockout.
“The script was to never recognize them. The scenario was: oh, there is no compromise, because doing this for our health is good for the economy,” he recalls.
He shares his memories of a particular government meeting where he got “very emotional” about education: “Forget the economy. Surely we can all agree that kids out of school are a major nightmare” or something like that. Then there was a great silence. It was the first time someone had said it. I was so furious.
He was already known to be among senior ministers fiercely opposed to a fourth lockdown when the Omicron variant hit the UK late last year. In this latest interview, he recounts how he returned early from a trip to California to meet his then-boss, Johnson.
I just told him it was wrong: we shouldn’t be doing this,” he reveals.
Asked if he threatened to quit if there was another lockdown, he said he used the “closest wording” to imply that threat. Sunak then lobbied other Cabinet ministers and built a wider network against another lockdown.
“I remember telling him [Johnson]: have the Cabinet meeting. You will see. Everyone will be completely behind you… You don’t have to worry. I will stand next to you, like all the other cabinet members, except probably [ministers] Michael [Gove] and Saj [Sajid Javid],” he said.
A public inquiry into the UK government’s handling of the pandemic has been set up, with public hearings due to start next year. But Sunak believes lessons can and should be learned immediately and that it would be up to the new leader of Downing Street to take those calls.
“The leader matters. It doesn’t matter who the person at the top is,” said Sunak, who continues to tackle campaign events to win votes from Conservative Party members in the online and mail-in ballot that will end on September 2. The winner will be declared in September. 5, when Sunak or Truss take over the government.
Downing Street said throughout the pandemic public health, education and the economy were “at the centre” of the tough decisions made on the lockdown to protect the British public from an “unprecedented new virus”.
“At each step, ministers made collective decisions that took into account a wide range of expert advice available at the time in order to protect public health,” a spokesperson said.

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