Conservative leadership contender Rishi Sunak on Thursday issued a scathing criticism of the UK government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that scientific advisers were given too much authority in decision making.
Sunak, who served as chancellor from February 2020 to July 2022, told the Spectator magazine that during the pandemic there was little discussion at the top of government surrounding the potential negative impacts of successive lockdowns.
“The script was: oh, there’s no trade-off, because doing this for our health is good for the economy,” he said, adding that he at times had got “emotional” when discussing the effect of restrictions on the education system. “We didn’t talk at all about missed [doctor’s] appointments, or the backlog building in the NHS in a massive way,” Sunak added.
Sunak and Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, are due to appear in front of Conservative party members on Thursday evening in Norwich for the penultimate hustings of the leadership election. Members have until September 2 to cast their ballot, with the new prime minister announced on September 5.
Truss has been consistently leading in opinion polls throughout the campaign. The latest survey from the Conservative Home website revealed that 60 per cent of Tory members were planning to back Truss compared with 28 per cent in favour of Sunak.
The former chancellor said that one of the key lessons from lockdown was that the government “shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did”, adding that there was little clarity given to ministers about how the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies calculated their scenarios on hospitalisations and deaths.
Sunak claims were supported by Mark Harper, former chief whip and chair of the Covid Recovery Group, who on Thursday argued that valid questions needed to be raised throughout the pandemic, but “dissenting voices were not allowed” within government.
Speaking to LBC, Harper who is backing the former chancellor, said: “When I raised questions — and we questioned the modelling — people in Number 10 briefed out to journalists that we deliberately wanted to kill thousands of people, which was clearly nonsense.”
He added: “We were simply asking questions to get better decisions, and I’m pleased that Rishi Sunak shone a bit of a light on what was going on in government at the time.”
However, Lee Cain, former director of communications at Number 10, pushed back against the criticism. He wrote on Twitter that it would have been “morally irresponsible” for the government not to have implemented a national lockdown in spring 2020.
Speaking ahead of her visit to Norwich, the foreign secretary pledged to “turbocharge” economies in East Anglia “by unleashing the private sector with tax cuts and better regulation”. She promised to introduce infrastructure improvements for the Norwich western link road and the Ely north rail junction.
Meanwhile, Sunak has promised to level up the region by reforming mental health services, delivering on road projects, such as the Great Yarmouth third crossing, and ensure that hospital projects are delivered on time.
Downing Street said: “Throughout the pandemic, public health, education and the economy were central to the difficult decisions made on Covid restrictions to protect the British public from an unprecedented novel virus.”
“Ministers made collective decisions which considered a wide range of expert advice available at the time in order to protect public health,” it added.