UK leadership candidate Sunak attacks COVID lockdown response

  • Ex-finance minister says downsides of lockdowns removed
  • Sunak says scientists had too much influence
  • Prime Minister’s candidate claims the government tried to scare the public

LONDON, Aug 25 (Reuters) – Former finance minister Rishi Sunak, one of two candidates vying to be Britain’s next prime minister, has criticized outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the COVID pandemic -19, claiming that it had been a mistake to “empower” scientists and that the disadvantages of the confinements had been removed.

The ruling Conservative Party is choosing a new leader after Johnson was forced to resign when dozens of ministers resigned in protest at a series of scandals and missteps. Party members are voting to select Sunak or Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who will take over next month.

Opinion polls show that Sunak is behind in the race. The handling of the pandemic has become an issue, with Truss saying this month that she would never endorse another lockdown again and also saying that as trade minister at the time she was not involved in making key decisions about how to respond.

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Sunak said the government was “wrong to scare people” about the coronavirus. He said he was barred by officials in Johnson’s office from discussing the “trade-offs” of imposing coronavirus restrictions, such as the impact on missed doctor’s appointments and lengthening waiting lists for health care in the state-run National Health Service.

“The script was to never recognize them,” he told Spectator magazine. “The script was, ‘oh, there’s no compromise, because doing this for our health is good for the economy’.”

Sunak said scientists from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the group that helped respond to the outbreak, had had too much influence from ministers in making decisions such as school closures and of nurseries.

Sunak said early in the pandemic, when presented with scenarios by scientists of what would happen if lockdowns were not imposed or extended, his underlying modeling demands were ignored.

Sunak said it is unfair to blame officials because ministers are elected to make decisions.

“If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed,” he said.

Sunak himself was hugely popular at the start of the pandemic because as then-finance minister he launched a furlough scheme that kept many people on the payroll even when shutdowns meant that they could not work.

‘VERY EMOTIONAL’

When asked why opinion polls showed the public was impatient for the country to be locked down, Sunak said: “We helped shape that: with the messages of fear.”

Sunak said the government was wrong to publish posters showing patients on ventilators and claimed the Cabinet Office was “very upset” when he gave a speech in September 2020 urging people to “live without fear”.

Britain under Johnson was slower than most of its European peers to lock down at the start of 2020. After suffering some of the highest death rates at the start of the pandemic, it later became one of the first major economies to reopen.

Asked about Sunak’s remarks, a government spokesman defended his record on COVID, saying the economy and children’s education were at the heart of tough decisions being made during the pandemic.

Sunak, who resigned from Johnson’s government last month, suggested schools could have remained open during the pandemic. He told a meeting he had tried to voice his opposition to school closures, saying he was “very emotional about it”.

“There was a big silence afterwards,” he said. “It was the first time anyone said it. I was so pissed.”

The lockdown “could have been shorter” or had a “different” approach, he said.

A public inquiry examining government preparedness as well as the public health and economic response to the pandemic is expected to begin gathering evidence next year.

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Reporting by Andrew MacAskill Editing by Kate Holton and Frances Kerry

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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