Editorial Staff
2 months ago

Editorial Staff
2 months ago

Rishi Sunak faces tough questions at a Covid inquiry looking at the government’s handling of the whole period of the pandemic

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by Mick the Ram

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been giving evidence at the on-going public inquiry into the government handling of Covid 19.

A series of public hearings began on 3 October and are due to end this week on 14 December and are focussing on the decisions made between January 2020 and February 2022, when the final restrictions in England ended.

The inquiry is being led by an independent chair person who in this case is former judge and peer Baroness Hallett, who was previously in charge of the inquests which followed the 7 July 2005 London bombings.

Last week former PM Boris Johnson, who was in charge at the time of the pandemic, received two full days of intense questioning. It was he who had announced the intention to carry out a public inquiry to look into all the decision-making and had said at the time that it was right for the government’s responses to be put “under the microscope”.

A report following the inquiry is expected to be published by the summer of 2024.

Blame game

Inquiries of this kind can demand evidence and compel witnesses to attend, but crucially they cannot find anybody innocent or guilty of committing an offence, but simply put forward conclusions and offer up recommendations, although the government is not obliged to accept them.

For that reason many see this as a waste of time and expense, with nobody accepting blame for decisions which ultimately led to people losing their lives.

Fighting for the economy

At the time Mr Sunak was chancellor and as such he had obvious concerns for the country’s economy. He introduced the furlough scheme to protect millions of people’s jobs when it became impossible for them to operate safely.

It produced an enormous bill of £70bn and he would have regular clashes with the scientific advisers who pushed for more forceful restrictions to contain the virus, when he argued that these would be catastrophic and lead to widespread bankruptcies and massive job losses.

He was keen to get the country moving again after the initial lockdown, but eventually a second lockdown had to be brought in from November 2020.

Apology

Mr Sunak started his evidence by saying he would provide it: “in the spirit of constructive candour” to help the inquiry with its deliberations. He began by offering an apology to “all of those who lost loved ones, and family members through the pandemic”.

He said it was important that lessons were learned: “so we can better prepare in the future”.

Actions defended

There had been much criticism of the timing of the first lockdown, but Mr Sunak was insistent that their scientific advisers were not pushing for it and instead had an approach of wanting to try to manage the spread, rather than suppress it.

He said it was only when it became apparent that the NHS was at “imminent” risk of being overwhelmed that the decision was taken.

 

Scheme introduced to protect hospitality

He was pressed on the subject of his Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which he introduced in August 2020 in line with the safe lifting of Covid measures, to kick-start the suffering hospitality sector, who he said were facing “devastating consequences” unless they received some sort of government backing.

He called it a “micro-policy” and was ultra defensive of the scheme, saying those who now are being critical had the opportunity at the time to challenge its wisdom, but said nothing.

The idea was to give a 50% discount on meals and soft drinks in pubs and restaurants all across the UK throughout the entire month. “My primary concern was protecting millions of jobs of particularly vulnerable people,” he said.

Scientists have the told the inquiry that some of the rises in cases and deaths around the time of the scheme are likely down to the mixing it encouraged.

Boris also faced uncomfortable questioning

It was an uncomfortable few hours for the PM, but like others who had given evidence before him, he was not in any rush to shoulder blame.

For two days last week (6 and 7 December) Boris Johnson had been given a real grilling with regards to his handling of the whole situation as the country’s leader.

He too began his evidence with an apology for the “pain and the loss and the suffering” experienced during the pandemic. He was immediately interrupted by protesters, who were ordered to leave the room. Some members of bereaved families held up pieces of paper reading: “The dead can’t hear your apologies.”

Regrets

He did his level best to put forward an argument that his actions proved he worked to curb the virus, rather than allowing it to spread through the population. Gone were his usual comedy moments as he categorically denied making a comment about letting the virus “rip a bit” and that it was that attitude that meant the national lockdown was introduced at the last possible moment.

He said he regretted the “hurt and offence” some of his language of the time had caused, but defended himself saying that much of what was reported was incorrect.

Emotional recollection

He did become emotional when he was accused of not caring about those suffering. He recalled his own battle with the virus which led to him spending time in intensive care.

“I saw around me a lot of people who were not elderly. In fact they were middle-aged, quite like me. Some of us were going to make it and some weren’t so I know from personal experience what an appalling disease this is… so to say that I didn’t care about the suffering being inflicted on the country is simply not right.”

He admitted this could have been done differently and accepted responsibility for decisions made, but added that ministers had done their “level best” in very difficult circumstances.

Further inquiry to follow next autumn

Once the report is published a further public enquiry looking at the impact of the pandemic on healthcare systems across the UK, will be the area of examination when it begins some time in the autumn of 2024.

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