Rishi's Covid D-Day: Sunak faces inquiry grilling as British public 'turns against his handling of the pandemic'

11 December 2023, 05:47 | Updated: 11 December 2023, 06:29

Rishi Sunak is to face the Covid Inquiry on Monday
Rishi Sunak is to face the Covid Inquiry on Monday. Picture: Alamy/Getty

By Kit Heren

The amount of people who think Rishi Sunak performed badly during the pandemic is nearly double the number who think he did well, according to a poll carried out last week.

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Mr Sunak, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer from February 2020-July 2022, will face the Covid inquiry on Monday to answer questions on his actions during the pandemic.

Among his most high-profile interventions was the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, when the government subsidised people's restaurant meals in a bid to kickstart the hospitality industry after the first lockdown.

Some 52% of people asked by YouGov in a poll for the Times think Eat Out to Help Out was a bad idea. Just under a third - 32% - think it was a good idea.

And 56% of respondents think he handled the overall economic response to Covid "badly" and 29% think he did "well". This is starkly different from how he was viewed in the first lockdown, when most people thought he was doing a good job.

Read more: Sunak and Johnson thought it was 'okay to let people die' during pandemic, Covid Inquiry hears

Read more: Boris Johnson slammed by victims' families after telling Covid inquiry Partygate coverage is a 'travesty of the truth'

Rishi Sunak places an Eat Out to Help Out sticker in the window of a business during a visit to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, Scotland.
Rishi Sunak places an Eat Out to Help Out sticker in the window of a business during a visit to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, Scotland. Picture: Alamy

Former top government scientists and Cabinet ministers have told the inquiry that they were unaware that Eat Out to Help Out was taking place ahead of its launch.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, privately called the scheme"eat out to help out the virus"

Sir Patrick Vallance, who was chief scientific adviser, said the plan was "highly likely" to have contributed to more deaths.

Mr Sunak will defend the scheme and claim that the scheme was announced a month before its launch in August 2020 and none of the scientists raised objections.

Mr Sunak was Chancellor during the pandemic
Mr Sunak was Chancellor during the pandemic. Picture: Getty

Government scientists are said to have referred to Mr Sunak as "Dr Death, the Chancellor" because of the perception that he was keen to push economic activity during the pandemic.

Sir Patrick's diary entries recorded government adviser Dominic Cummings saying Mr Sunak "thinks just let people die and that's OK".

The inquiry has shared an interview Mr Sunak did with the Spectator magazine in August last year.

He said he "wasn't allowed to talk about the trade-off" between the economic and social impacts of lockdowns versus their effectiveness at suppressing the virus.

The Covid Inquiry will 'get to the root' of the 'lessons to be learned' says former Comms chief

He discussed the "problem" of giving scientists too much power, adding: "If you empower all these independent people, you're screwed."

Mr Sunak is also expected to be questioned about his WhatsApp messages, which he has not provided to the inquiry.

He has said that he no longer has access to the messages, "having changed my phone a number of times over the last three years" he no longer has access.

A source close to Mr Sunak told the Times: "He’s going to get absolutely slaughtered over his failure to provide WhatsApps". A separate poll by Focaldata found that 59% think the Prime Minister has deliberately hidden the messages.

Rachel Johnson and Ross Clark criticise the COVID Inquiry

The YouGov poll found a more favourable response to the Treasury's financial support schemes to households and businesses during the pandemic.

Some 35% found that said Mr Sunak had given the “about the right level” of support. 23% said the schemes cost too much and 24% claimed the government should have given more support.

Mr Sunak is also expected to be asked if the government gave enough consideration to the economic impact of lockdowns, and if scientists were given too much power.

Mr Sunak was Chancellor under Boris Johnson, who has also been questioned by the Inquiry
Mr Sunak was Chancellor under Boris Johnson, who has also been questioned by the Inquiry. Picture: Alamy

Lawyers representing bereaved families from the four UK nations will also question Mr Sunak, as will long Covid groups and the Trades Union Congress.

The union's assistant general secretary Kate Bell said: "The Prime Minister must come clean about why these decisions were taken - especially when senior government advisers were warning that people couldn't afford to stay home when sick.

"The failure to provide proper financial support was an act of self-sabotage that left millions brutally exposed to the pandemic."

It comes in a crunch week for Mr Sunak, as he tries to get his revised Rwanda plan through Parliament. Some MPs on the right of the party are expected to rebel.

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