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Sunak must stand his ground on lockdown

Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson give a remote press conference during the pandemic
Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson give a remote press conference during the pandemic

Rishi Sunak’s appearance at the Covid Inquiry on Monday may well be the least of his problems this week if his MPs stage a revolt on the Rwanda Bill in the Commons on Tuesday.

The Prime Minister is the last of a procession of senior politicians to give evidence on how the pandemic was handled. He had been chancellor of the exchequer for just a few days when the virus hit and the government forced the country into a lockdown. He swiftly pulled together a package of measures designed to protect the jobs, businesses and incomes of people no longer able to work. Since much of the country had been forced to stay at home by state diktat, there was no option other than to support them.

However, the cost was colossal and the furlough scheme more generous than that provided in many other countries. The £400 billion bill for the various schemes pushed up the national debt and will be paid off for decades to come.

Then again, the economy has recovered better than expected with growth, though flatlining, better than in some other European countries. However, the inquiry is likely to be less interested in what Mr Sunak did for the economy than in his alleged role in spreading the virus. The questioning has focused recently on the so-called “eat out to help out” scheme which he pioneered in the summer of 2020 to try to shore up the embattled hospitality industry, which was particularly hard hit by the lockdowns.

Mr Sunak has been dubbed “Dr Death” by one adviser because a few months later a second wave hit the country and killed more people than the first. Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, has also accused Mr Sunak of prioritising the economy over tackling the disease while scientific advisers claim they were kept in the dark about the plans and would not have approved them.

The eat out scheme came at a low point in infections before they took off again but, as Michael Gove pointed out, was well trailed without any objections. The Prime Minister’s critics appear now to be suggesting that social restrictions should have been kept in place throughout the summer of 2020 to avoid a second wave, but there is no evidence that would have helped.

Moreover, to say the economy was prioritised is a failure to understand that it needed to be sustained if there was to be a viable future after the pandemic. Mr Sunak was right to do so and should face down any attempts at scapegoating by the Covid inquisition.

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