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Rishi Sunak Claims Covid Lockdown Harms Not Properly Considered

Rishi Sunak has claimed the harms of lockdown were not properly considered during the Covid pandemic, suggesting the strict encroachments on people’s freedoms could have been shorter.

The Tory leadership hopeful gave his most detailed recollection to date of the discussions at the heart of government he was part of as chancellor, when ministers were grappling to curb the spread of the virus, minimise deaths and avoid the NHS becoming overwhelmed.

Sunak said he was effectively blocked from raising concerns about the negative “trade-offs” of lockdown, such as the operations backlog and most children being home-schooled, with too much effort put into peddling a “fear narrative”.

Minutes of meetings held by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) often did not reflect the criticisms made of certain policies, Sunak added.

His comments were disputed by a senior figure in Downing Street during the Covid crisis, who said that avoiding a lockdown would have killed tens of thousands more people.

It comes with just over a week left in the Conservative leadership contest, with Sunak trailing behind rival Liz Truss in polls of party members.

Though the former chancellor’s position is well established as a cabinet “dove” who pushed back against restrictions advocated for by “hawks” – such as the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, and Michael Gove, who was Cabinet Office minister at the time – he revealed the private pressure he put on Boris Johnson.

In an interview with the Spectator magazine, Sunak said that in December 2021, when he flew back from California to pressure the prime minister not to reintroduce restrictions over Christmas, “I just told him it’s not right: we shouldn’t do this”.

Though Sunak said he did not threaten to quit, he added “I used the closest formulation of words that I could” to imply that threat.

“Everything I did was seen through the prism of: ‘You’re trying to be difficult, trying to be leader,” Sunak claimed.

He said there was a lack of frank discussion about the harms of lockdown as far back as March 2020, when the first national “stay at home” order was issued.

“I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off,” Sunak said. “The script was not to ever acknowledge them. The script was: ‘Oh, there’s no trade-off, because doing this for our health is good for the economy.’

“Those meetings were literally me around that table, just fighting. It was incredibly uncomfortable every single time.”

He recalled one meeting where he mentioned education: “I was very emotional about it. I was like: ‘Forget about the economy. Surely we can all agree that kids not being in school is a major nightmare’ or something like that. There was a big silence afterwards. It was the first time someone had said it. I was so furious.”

Sunak also said he tried to push back against the “fear narrative”. Recalling the posters showing Covid patients on ventilators, the MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire said it was “wrong to scare people like that”.

For a “very long time”, Sunak claimed, Sage did not realise a Treasury official tuned in to their calls. “She was great because it meant that she was sitting there, listening to their discussions,” he said.

When dissenting voices were omitted from official minutes, Sunak said his mole would tell him: “‘Well, actually, it turns out that lots of people disagreed with that conclusion’, or ‘Here are the reasons that they were not sure about it’.

“So at least I would be able to go into these meetings better armed,” Sunak added.

One big lesson was that “we shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did”, Sunak said. “And you have to acknowledge trade-offs from the beginning. If we’d done all of that, we could be in a very different place.”

Pressed on how different, Sunak said: “We’d probably have made different decisions on things like schools, for example.” Lockdowns could have been “shorter, different, quicker”, he said.

The comments were criticised by Lee Cain, who was director of communications in Downing Street until November 2020.

“Huge admirer of Rishi Sunak but his position on lockdown is simply wrong,” Cain tweeted. “It would have been morally irresponsible of the govt not to implement lockdown in spring 2020 – the failure to do so would have killed tens of thousands of people who survived Covid.

“In addition, without lockdown the NHS simply could not have survived & would have been overwhelmed. This would have seen an even greater backlog of excess deaths for missed cancer appointments etc.”

A No 10 spokesperson 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.

“At every point, ministers made collective decisions which considered a wide range of expert advice available at the time in order to protect public health.”

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