Sir Patrick Vallance has breathed new life into Rishi Sunak’s image as Dr Death at the Covid Inquiry after evidence revealed the prime minister said the government should “just let people die” during the pandemic.
Vallance – the government’s chief scientific advisor (CSA) when Covid hit – also contradicted Sunak’s written evidence to the inquiry in the latest round of explosive testimony from the ongoing Covid inquiry. Aside from validating the perception of callous Conservatives being “the nasty party”, the CSA’s account further undermines Dr Death’s promises, not least that his regime would be one of “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”.
Sunak was chancellor during the pandemic and a key voice around the cabinet table as arguments raged about the looming second lockdown in October 2020.
According to Vallance’s contemporaneous diaries – ones he said he wrote as a “brain dump” to protect his mental health and never expected to be made public – ministers clashed and disagreed with advisers about what to do. The shambles showed a “complete lack of leadership”, Vallance wrote in his entry for October 25 2020.
In it, Vallance writes that Dominic Cummings (“DC”) was “rightly” arguing to introduce the inevitable second lockdown “sooner rather than later”. Then PM Boris Johnson was dallying. The entry continues: “Looks like we are in a really tough spot, a complete shambles. I really don’t want to do another national lockdown’.
“PM told that if he wants to go down this route of letting go, ‘you need to tell people – you need to tell them you are going to allow people to die’ […] Conclusion – beef up the tiers – consider a national lockdown – decide by when.
“DC says ‘Rishi thinks just let people die and that’s okay’.
“This all feels like a complete lack of leadership.”
It was another 11 days before the second lockdown was introduced.
The devastating critique was compounded soon after as Vallance told the inquiry he, as the chief scientific adviser, was not told about Sunak’s signature “Eat Out To Help Out” scheme before it was announced.
He said the scheme “is highly likely to have” increased Covid infections. “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,” said Vallance.
Not only does the testimony make a nonsense of the government’s claim it was “following the science” throughout the pandemic, it does similar to Sunak’s relationship with the truth.
In his written evidence to the inquiry, Sunak explicitly denies ministers were warned against “Eat Out To Help Out”. The now PM writes: “I do not. recall any concerns about the scheme being expressed during ministerial discussions, including those attended bye the CMO [chief medical officer Chris Whitty] and the CSA [chief scientific adviser Vallance”.
Eat Put To Help Out may have helped the balance sheet of restaurants (temporarily) but it didn’t help the NHS, schools, or the vulnerable who ended up paying with their lives. The only apparent cost to Sunak, the architect of the policy, has been some tarnishing of his carefully – and expensively – curated brand. Ironically, it was Prof Dame Angela McLean – former top government scientist and now Vallance’s successor as CSA – who coined the PM’s Dr Death moniker in a Whatsapp message to a colleague when she learned about Eat Out To Help Out in media reports.
Responding to Vallance’s testimony was Green party MP Caroline Lucas, speaking for many about what she described as “Sunak’s grossly irresponsible Eat Out to help Out scheme”. Posting on social media, Lucas added: “He is to blame for the damage caused. He needs to be held accountable.”
But he won’t be by the Covid inquiry given it lacks any authority beyond investigating what went on during the pandemic. Parliament itself has long shown a reluctance to deal with miscreants and misleaders, especially from those at the top of the greasy pole so it will be down to the electorate to determine at the next general election.
It will likely be January 2025 when they get to do so meaning Brand Rishi still has plenty of time to cast off the Dr Death cloak, dispense fully of the Hi Risk Anus anagram and trust in time and favourable media coverage to complete a revamp and (yet unlikely) revival of Tory fortunes.