Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced a dual challenge last week: answering questions at the Covid Inquiry and dealing with a vote on the revised Rwanda scheme. He survived – but for how long?
‘Eat out to help the virus’
Sunak introduced the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme in August 2020, as lockdown restrictions were easing. Costing around £500 million, it aimed to support the hospitality sector by encouraging people to eat out, giving diners a 50 per cent discount on meals on Mondays to Wednesdays.
Researchers at the University of Warwick found that the scheme caused a “significant rise in new infections” in August and early September 2020; they argued that this contributed to the rise of the second wave of Covid infections. While restaurants saw a boost in restaurant visits at the time, there was no lasting benefit once the scheme ended.
Chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty referred to the scheme as “Eat out to help the virus”, while Sunak was nicknamed ‘Dr Death the Chancellor’ by chief scientific adviser Dame Angela McLean. They and other scientists claim not to have known about the plan in advance or been consulted about it, and former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance maintains that Sunak must have been aware of scientific objections.
Sunak’s robust defence – but lack of recall
At the inquiry, Sunak “did not recall any concerns”, arguing that he did not need to consult scientists on what was a “micro policy”. He strongly defended the scheme: “This was a very reasonable, sensible policy intervention to help safeguard those jobs in that safe reopening… I believe it was the right thing to do.”
Naomi Fulop, a spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, claimed that “Sunak’s reckless, unscientific and callous approach” cost her mother’s and many other lives. Sunak’s emphasis on words like ‘safe’ and ‘sensible’ sought to counteract this view – but common sense at the time told a different story.
In some ways, Sunak made a far better impression at the inquiry than Boris Johnson the previous week. He had the financial aspects at his fingertips and was confident in his replies to questions. However, like the former PM, Sunak did show a remarkable lack of recall. Though pressed hard by counsel Hugo Keith and representatives of Covid sufferers, Sunak claimed not to remember details of meetings or events, including (unbelievably) the decision to impose a lockdown in March 2020.
Also like Johnson, Sunak had no real answer about the lack of WhatsApp messages during the pandemic, claiming that no one had told him to back them up: “I don’t recall…” It’s incredible how much amnesia both past and present PMs have shown to the inquiry.
The ‘Safety’ of Rwanda bill – a ‘lunatic, unworkable plan’
Sunak’s inquiry appearance was a walk in the park compared to the following day, when the Commons vote on the Rwanda bill went very close to the wire.
I’ve followed the inhumane Rwanda scheme from its first mention in May 2022, under former home Secretary Priti Patel. After the recent Supreme Court ruling that the Rwanda policy was unlawful, the plans should have been ditched once and for all, but Sunak has clung on to a desperate hope that it will fulfil his pledge to ‘stop the boats’. The plans have already cost the taxpayer £240 million, with more to follow.
The misnamed Safety of Rwanda Bill seeks to show that Rwanda is a safe country, “notwithstanding UK and international law”. The word ‘notwithstanding’ somehow seeks to condone the fact that the bill will “disapply relevant sections of the Human Rights Act” and prevent courts from “challenging the fact that Rwanda is safe”. In effect, the bill will override international law and prevent asylum seekers from challenging their removal, apart from “extremely limited exceptions”. My sense of shame that this bill even saw the light of day is an under-statement.
Despite this “lunatic, unworkable plan”, as John Crace puts it in a hard-hitting Guardian column, five different groups within the Conservative party expressed their intention to oppose the bill: “Outcompeting each other to new levels of insanity…so last Brexit.” Sunak had to desperately woo them over a No.10 breakfast to try and convince them to vote for the bill – or at least abstain. Which they did in the end, in a vote that went close to the wire.
In a horrible irony, on the same day the bill was debated, an asylum seeker on board the Bibby Stockholm died in a suspected suicide. Refugee Council chair Enver Solomon reminds us of the reasons that desperate people seek asylum: to escape war and torture. Amidst the political posturing, the trauma and fear of those threatened with deportation to Rwanda are overlooked, Solomon argues. He warns that “basic decency and humanity” are lost beneath politicians’ game-playing: “a game that has appalling human consequences”.
Sadly, the ‘game’ looks set to continue.