Mr Rishi Sunak, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, is finding himself entangled in the chaos surrounding the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. As the official Covid-19 inquiry unfolds, the public is being confronted with the graphic details of the turmoil that plagued Downing Street during the height of the crisis.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced severe criticism, with his former communications director testifying that he was ill-equipped to handle the crisis. While Mr Sunak has not yet faced the same level of vitriol, the inquiry may shed light on his involvement in decision-making, and he is expected to testify in the coming weeks.
The concern for Mr Sunak lies in the risk of being associated with a broken system, despite his attempts to distance himself from the previous Tory governments. With a national vote expected in 2024, he could face renewed scrutiny over his “Eat Out to Help Out” program, which aimed to stimulate the economy by subsidizing meals in pubs and restaurants but was criticized for potentially spreading the virus.
During the inquiry, it was revealed that Mr Sunak was described as “Dr Death the chancellor” by a government scientific adviser in September 2020. Additionally, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty allegedly referred to Mr Sunak’s program as “Eat Out to Help Out the Virus” in a private conversation. Lee Cain, Mr Johnson’s former director of communications, further criticized both the program and the policy of encouraging people back to workplaces, stating that they made no sense and contradicted scientific advice.
The UK has experienced over 231,000 deaths from Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. While the country has been commended for its relatively fast vaccine rollout, it initially faced challenges with testing and tracing. The National Health Service also lagged behind European counterparts in terms of hospital beds, critical care, and medical technology.
The inquiry takes place amidst public anger over reports of drinks parties in Downing Street during lockdowns, leading to fines for both Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak for breaking pandemic rules. The renewed focus on the government’s pandemic response poses a challenge for Mr Sunak as he attempts to narrow the 20-point gap between his Conservative Party and Keir Starmer’s Labour Party in national opinion polls.
Transparency is another issue that Mr Sunak must address. The inquiry has received a series of WhatsApp messages, including some from him and Mr Johnson. However, it has been reported that many of these messages were not retained. Mr Sunak claimed in his witness statement that he does not have access to his WhatsApp messages from his time as Chancellor due to changing phones. The Prime Minister has declined to comment, but he has expressed willingness to cooperate with the inquiry.
Led by retired judge and crossbench peer Heather Hallett, the inquiry aims to thoroughly examine and learn from all aspects of the UK’s response to the pandemic. It plans to release interim reports leading up to a final report in 2027. The current focus of the inquiry is on decision-making and political governance, which could potentially pose challenges for Mr Sunak.
More detail via The Straits Times here… ( Image via The Straits Times )