Covid Inquiry: Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van Tam reject claims from Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson that scientists signed off on Eat Out to Help Out

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Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson failed to consult the Government’s top scientists on the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, Sir Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Professor Jonathan Van-Tam claimed today. 

Former Chancellor Mr Sunak launched the flagship offer in August 2020. Brits were given discounts for dining in restaurants in a bid to kickstart the hospitality industry that suffered heavily because of lockdowns. 

But the policy was not agreed with England’s chief medical officer or No10’s ex-chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, Sir Chris told the Covid Inquiry. 

He added that neither would have agreed to the scheme, had they been informed, despite former PM Mr Johnson telling the probe it had been ‘properly discussed’. 

Sir Jonathan also admitted the first he heard of the scheme was ‘on the TV’.  

Their comments mirror claims made by Sir Patrick to the inquiry on Monday, which criticised the scheme, arguing it was ‘highly likely’ that people died because of the policy. 

The policy was not agreed with England’s chief medical officer or No10’s ex-chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance , Sir Professor Chris Whitty (pictured) told the Covid Inquiry. He added that neither would have agreed to the scheme, had they been informed, despite former PM Mr Johnson telling the probe it had ‘been discussed’

Then-Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, launched the flagship offer in August 2020. Brits were given discounts for dining in restaurants in a bid to kickstart the hospitality industry that suffered heavily because of lockdowns

Then-Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, launched the flagship offer in August 2020. Brits were given discounts for dining in restaurants in a bid to kickstart the hospitality industry that suffered heavily because of lockdowns

Responding to questioning by Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry’s chief lawyer, he said: ‘My written statement makes clear there was no consultation.’

Mr Keith countered: ‘I need to put to you that in his witness statement, Boris Johnson says “it was properly discussed, including with Chris and Patrick”, do you agree with that?’

But Sir Chris replied: ‘On this one, neither Patrick nor I can recall it and I think we would have done.’

He added: ‘I made fairly firmly to number 10, not to the Prime Minister, the view that it would have been prudent — let’s put it that way — for them to have thought about discussing it [the scheme] before it was launched.’

He acknowledged, however, that it was ‘perfectly legitimate’ for the Treasury and other government departments to come up with different schemes.

‘I was unsurprised that the Treasury and many other ministries were coming up with those schemes – it is perfectly legitimate. Number 10 held the ring’, he said. 

‘It may well be correct that the Prime Minister was under the impression we had been consulted’, he noted. 

But Mr Keith responded: ‘His [Boris Johnson’s] assertion is that it was properly discussed. Not that he was under the impression it was discussed.’

Asked whether he too had been consulted on the scheme, Sir Jonathan also told the inquiry today ‘absolutely not’.

He added: ‘The first I heard about was, I think, on the TV.

‘Had I been consulted I wouldn’t have made any distinction between Eat Out to Help Out and any other epidemiological event that brought different households into close contact with each other for the purposes of socialising, eating and consuming alcohol.

‘The net epidemiological effect is agnostic to what’s on the menu.

‘I would have said: “this is exactly encouraging what we’ve been trying to suppress and get on top of in the last few months”. So it didn’t feel sensible to me.’

Addressing the probe on Monday, Sir Patrick, said scientists were unaware of the Eat Out To Help Out policy until it was announced.

The inquiry was shown Mr Sunak’s witness statement, which states that he did not recall ‘any concerns about the scheme being expressed during ministerial discussions’, including those attended by Sir Patrick.

But the scientist, who headed up SAGE before standing down from his £185,000-a-year role, 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.’

Sir Patrick added: ‘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.’

Asked whether the scheme would have fuelled Covid deaths, Sir Patrick also said: ‘It’s highly likely to have done.’

In response, Mr Sunak today argued he would not be drawn into a debate on the subject and would instead ‘address all these questions’ when giving his own evidence to the inquiry in the coming weeks.  

Addressing the probe on Monday, Sir Patrick, also said scientists were unaware of the Eat Out To Help Out policy until it was announced. Pictured, diners sit at tables outside a restaurant in London on August 3, 2020 as part of the scheme

Addressing the probe on Monday, Sir Patrick, also said scientists were unaware of the Eat Out To Help Out policy until it was announced. Pictured, diners sit at tables outside a restaurant in London on August 3, 2020 as part of the scheme

Asked whether he too had been consulted on the scheme, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam (pictured) also told the inquiry today 'absolutely not'. He added: 'The first I heard about was, I think, on the TV'

Asked whether he too had been consulted on the scheme, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam (pictured) also told the inquiry today ‘absolutely not’. He added: ‘The first I heard about was, I think, on the TV’

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour MP Gareth Thomas said: ‘On Monday the Government’s [former] chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance told the Covid inquiry that the now-Prime Minister had not asked for advice regarding Eat Out to Help Out.

‘But on March 9 two years ago, the Prime Minister told this House that, and I quote, at all steps in the crisis we have taken the advice of our scientific advisers. Who is right?’

Mr Sunak responded: ‘As he knows there is an ongoing statutory inquiry into Covid. 

‘It’s absolutely right that that process is followed. I look forward to providing my own evidence in the coming weeks and addressing all these questions.

‘But it was the case that the Government took advice from scientific advisers, and again, that’s exactly what this inquiry will go over.’

Sir Chris, who was tasked with advising ministers throughout the pandemic, also told the inquiry that herd immunity — when enough people are immune to a virus that it is unable to spread — was not a policy during the pandemic.

He told the Covid inquiry that the public debate about this led to ‘considerable confusion’ where there was a ‘large amount of chatter’ by ‘people who had at best half-understood the issue’.

Former senior adviser to Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, has repeatedly dismissed claims by former health secretary Matt Hancock and other ministers, that herd immunity was not considered during the pandemic.

Mr Cummings said ‘herd immunity by Sep’ was ‘literally the official plan in all docs/graphs/meetings until it was ditched.’

Addressing the probe today, Sir Chris also said it would have been ‘very dangerous’ to adopt such a plan.

He added: ‘I never saw anybody on the record, or anybody sensible, aiming for it [herd immunity] as a goal. I think some people tried to explain it as “this is what would happen over time”. I think, frankly, unhelpfully.

‘I definitely made communication errors through the pandemic. But my view was this scenario where communications were a long way from helpful for the public, which is really what communications should be about.

‘Because it gave an impression the government was pursuing a policy which it absolutely was not pursuing. 

‘And reasonably people were upset about that policy because it would have been the wrong policy – but it wasn’t the policy.’

Sir Chris also said it would have been ‘inconceivable’ to make herd immunity through natural infection as an actual policy goal because ‘it would have led to extraordinarily high loss of life.’

In further revelations, the inquiry also heard that Sir Chris thought WhatsApp was ‘an appalling mechanism’ for discussing technical issues.

Sir Patrick Vallance, No10's ex-chief scientific adviser, today said it is 'highly likely' that people died because of the policy, adding that all ministers were aware that such schemes were risky

Sir Patrick Vallance, No10’s ex-chief scientific adviser, today said it is ‘highly likely’ that people died because of the policy, adding that all ministers were aware that such schemes were risky 

In response, Mr Sunak (pictured today) argued he would not be drawn into a debate on the subject and would instead 'address all these questions' when giving his own evidence to the inquiry in the coming weeks

In response, Mr Sunak (pictured today) argued he would not be drawn into a debate on the subject and would instead ‘address all these questions’ when giving his own evidence to the inquiry in the coming weeks

Previous witnesses summoned in front of the inquiry have been shown foul-mouthed tirades by figures including Mr Cummings, who repeatedly described those at the top of government as ‘c***s’ on WhatsApp. 

Sir Chris told the inquiry: ‘We didn’t do very much technical stuff on WhatsApp unless it was extremely straightforward, like there have been three new cases or something of that kind.’

WhatsApp ‘would not be an appropriate approach’ for tackling topics with ‘greater scientific subtlety’, he added. 

Earlier he also admitted that measures announced by Boris Johnson on March 16, 2020 encouraging people to stay at home and start working from home where possible were not applied quickly enough. 

‘If we were to run this again — hopefully none of us ever will — we would have brought in March 16 measures several days earlier,’ he added. 

He also said that by the weekend before the first lockdown was implemented on March 23, 2020, the UK was already in ‘deep trouble’ and could not afford to wait to see if earlier measures would bring the R number for the rate of infection below one.

Putting in restrictions in mid-March 2020 were the ‘antithesis’ to Boris Johnson’s ‘whole philosophy’, but he made the move as he recognised how dire the situation had become, he added.

He also told the probe that he was not convinced that ‘all parts of the Downing Street machinery’ were ‘seized of the urgency’ of action against coronavirus in early March 2020.

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