Dr Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, has rejected Rishi Sunak’s claim that scientists were wrongly “empowered” during the Covid pandemic. (See 9.47am.)
The proportion of top grades among GCSE results for 16-year-olds in England has fallen since last year, with the overall pass rate also down, after pupils whose education has been disrupted by the pandemic sat the first examinations in three years. Our full story is here.
And here is a full summary of what Rishi Sunak says about the handling of lockdown in his Spectator interview.
Sunak says that, at the start of lockdown, he was not allowed to acknowledge that the policy involved a trade-off, with advantages and disadvantages. He says:
I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off. 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.
He claims that ministers were even discouraged in private from acknowledging in the problems generated by lockdown. This is how Fraser Nelson, who interviewed Sunak, summarises what Sunak said on this.
If frank discussion was being suppressed externally, Sunak thought it all the more important that it took place internally. But that was not his experience. ‘I felt like no one talked,’ he says. ‘We didn’t talk at all about missed [doctor’s] appointments, or the backlog building in the NHS in a massive way. That was never part of it.’ When he did try to raise concerns, he met a brick wall. ‘Those meetings were literally me around that table, just fighting. It was incredibly uncomfortable every single time.’ He recalls one meeting where he raised 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.’
In fact, officials did devote considerable time to analysing the impact of lockdown. In July 2020 a 188-page report was produced explaining how lockdown increase excess deaths and illness over the long term. The report was later updated.
He says that, if he had been in charge, he would “just have had a more grown-up conversation with the country” about the advantages and disadvantages of lockdown.
In the early days, Sunak had an advantage. ‘The Sage people didn’t realise for a very long time that there was a Treasury person on all their calls. A lovely lady. She was great because it meant that she was sitting there, listening to their discussions.’
It meant he was alerted early to the fact that these all-important minutes of Sage meetings often edited out dissenting voices. His mole, he says, 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.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, would probably challenge this. He did admit in public that the scientists did not always agree, and as one of the chairs of Sage his job was to produce a consensus view.
Sunak says Sage had too much power. “This is the problem. If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed,” he says. Ironically, this is similar to Liz Truss’s stance on the Bank of England, which Sunak has criticised as a threat to the Bank’s independence.
I was like: ‘Summarise for me the key assumptions, on one page, with a bunch of sensitivities and rationale for each one.’ In the first year I could never get this.
Sunak told Nelson the Treasury would never take decisions based on unexplained modelling of this kind.
[Sunak] flew back early from a trip to California. By this time JP Morgan’s lockdown analysis was being emailed around among cabinet ministers like a samizdat paper, and they were ready to rebel. Sunak met Johnson. ‘I just told him it’s not right: we shouldn’t do this.’ He did not threaten to resign if there was another lockdown, ‘but I used the closest formulation of words that I could’ to imply that threat. Sunak then rang around other ministers and compared notes.
Normally, cabinet members were not kept in the loop as Covid-related decisions were being made – Johnson’s No. 10 informed them after the event, rather than consulting them. Sunak says he urged the PM to pass the decision to cabinet so that his colleagues could give him political cover for rejecting the advice of Sage. ‘I remember telling him: have the cabinet meeting. You’ll see. Everyone will be completely behind you … You don’t have to worry. I will be standing next to you, as will every other member of the cabinet, bar probably Michael [Gove] and Saj [Javid].’ As it was to prove.
Sunak says, if wrong decisions were taken, it was the fault of politicians (and the PM, he implies), not civil servants. He says:
All this blaming civil servants – I hate it. We are elected to run the country, not to blame someone else. If the apparatus is not there, then we change it.
[When things go well] it comes from the person at the top being able to make decisions properly – and understanding how to make good decisions.
The leader matters. It matters who the person at the top is.
This is the one passage in the interview that sounds most like implicit criticism of Liz Truss. She has repeatedly attacked civil servants, mainly for being in thrall to orthodox thinking and for being too “woke”.
Good morning. When Rishi Sunak quit as chancellor in July, he cited in his resignation letter two reasons why he could no longer serve Boris Johnson: Johnson’s approach to standards (a reference to the Chris Pincher scandal); and their different views on economic policy (which Sunak implied was more important). The Conservative leadership contest has largely focused on economics, with Sunak attacking Liz Truss unremittingly on the grounds that she is advocating the “too good to be true” economic approach championed by Johnson.
But, in an interview published today in the Spectator, Sunak reveals that he also disagreed with Johnson on probably the most important decision taken by the government. Sunak says he thought the lockdown went too far. This was reported to some extent at the time, but until now Sunak has never spoken about this in detail.
Essentially, he is making three arguments.
Sunak suggests Johnson let the lockdown go on for too long. He does not argue that the lockdown was a total mistake, but he says that if the government had been more willing to acknowledge the pros and cons of the policy, “we could be in a very different place”. He goes on:
We’d probably have made different decisions on things like schools, for example.
Asked if Britain could have avoided lockdown completely, like Sweden, he replied:
I don’t know, but it could have been shorter. Different. Quicker.
He says the government’s scientific advisers, in particular Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), were given too much power.
My colleague Nadeem Badshah has a story on the interview here.
Fraser Nelson, the Spectator editor, has long been one of the media figures more critical of lockdown, and in particular the Covid modelling used by Sage, and the magazine has plugged the interview heavily. Given that many Tory members were also sceptical of lockdown, it is surprising that Sunak did not choose to make these points earlier in the campaign. In his London Playbook briefing Emilio Casalicchio says Sunak did not plan an intervention on this now; he just agreed to be interviewed by the Specator, and Nelson asked about lockdown. Casalicchio also quotes a former No 10 official saying Sunak’s account of what happened behind the scenes was broadly accurate. The ex-official said:
This is a pretty fair account of what Rishi said and thought at the time. Sometimes he’d very forcefully argue his case. Other times he’d know the machine had already decided the outcome, so he would say less, while Matt [Hancock] and Michael [Gove] pushed against an open door for a very hardcore approach. The PM and Rishi both hated lockdowns. Rishi always understood, though, that the blame would rest with Boris if we got it wrong. He was as forceful as he could be given the circumstances.
In response to Sunak’s comments a Downing Street 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.
In his interview Sunak does not directly make the handling of Covid a leadership issue. He does not mention Liz Truss by name, although Fraser in his write-up says Truss “was silent throughout” (meaning that she did not join Sunak in speaking out against lockdown policy). But Truss was international trade secretary at the time, and so she was not part of the cabinet inner circle that decided Covid policy.
However Sunak does say in the interview that Covid was an example of why leadership matters. If things go well, “it comes from the person at the top being able to make decisions properly – and understanding how to make good decisions”, he says.
I will post more from the Sunak interview shortly.
Here is the agenda for the day.
12pm: Rishi Sunak takes part in a Facebook Q&A.
After 1pm: Sunak is due to be interviewed on Radio 4’s World at One.
7pm: The penultimate official Conservative party hustings takes place, in Norwich. TalkTV’s Julia Hartley-Brewer is hosting. It’s the 11th hustings. The final one takes place next Wednesday, in London.
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