Former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has said it was wrong for the UK government to “scare people like that” about the coronavirus. In an interview with The Spectator, he said he repeatedly warned government that the “fear messaging” was wrong, adding that he strongly disagreed with the alarmist posters of the NHS (National Health Service) showing patients on ventilators.
“In every brief, we tried to say: let’s stop the “fear” narrative. It was always wrong from the beginning. I constantly said it was wrong,” he said.
“The posters showing COVID patients on ventilators were the worst. It was wrong to scare people like that.”
Sunak, who served under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, resigned in July this year in the wake of the “party gate scandal” which triggered a public crisis confidence in the government as it came to light that several parties and gatherings had taken place at 10 Downing Street against COVID rules and at a time when the country was under lockdown.
In his resignation letter, he avoided pointing fingers at Boris Johnson, emphasizing “I have been loyal to you” but he was quitting because “the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously,” and “these standards are worth fighting for”.
Sunak is now running to be Prime Minister in the Tory leadership contest after Boris Johnson announced his resignation in July.
When lockdown was announced – the most draconian restriction of fundamental freedoms during peacetime -, the government repeatedly claimed that the risks had been properly considered.
But Sunak says in fact, lockdown was a political decision, and the Boris Johnson government did not consider the wider social and economic trade-offs and their long lasting implications. Dissenting voices were marginalized, and frank discussion was suppressed.
“I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off,” says Sunak.
What is more, ministers received explicit briefing instructions to deny the harm that would be caused by lockdown.
“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.”
Sunak tried to raise the cost-benefit calculations of lockdown in cabinet meetings, but discovered he was lone fighter.
“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.”
Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, had initially openly admitted that lockdown do more bad than good but later supported the policy.
The effects of lockdown, as it is now coming to light, have been highly damaging. Because of cancelled appointments, the NHS waiting list will expand by a whopping 3 million, from six million now to nine million by 2024. Thousands of avoidable cancer deaths are expected due to late diagnosis. The British economy has a shortage of 300,000 to 400,000 workers, which is a “problem” for the former Chancellor, and some 5.3 million are unemployed and on state aid, with older workers having decided to give up on work.
Sunak says when the British government started noticing the trends, it was already “too late”.
How Lockdown Was Really Decided
Sunak recounted how the government decided to impose lockdown and the decisive and in his opinion, unjustified role played by the SAGE, a group of scientific advisers to the government.
The critical point came when SAGE adviser Professor Neil Ferguson and his team from Imperial College presented ‘Report 9’, which said that COVID casualties could hit 500,000 if no action was taken, which turned out to be a vast exaggeration. Lockdown, the report argued would bring the casualty level to below 20,000. The Ferguson report stressed that “it did ‘not consider the wider social and economic costs of suppression, which will be high’.
But Sunak says the government never did the cost-benefit calculation, and decided to trust the models it was being presented, even as a number of voices disagreed with the report’s conclusions.
Sunak says he was alerted about the disagreements thanks to the Treasury official who sat on all SAGE meetings and witnessed the discussions. Through the lady, who served as his “mole”, Sunak would come to know that the minutes of SAGE meetings often removed dissenting voices.
The Treasury person would tell Sunak:’“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.”, said Sunak.
Sunak would then insist to see how the apocalyptic scenarios being presented to cabinet had been calculated, but his requests would fall on deaf ears.
‘I was like: “Summarise for me the key assumptions, on one page, with a bunch of sensitivities and rationale for each one”,’ Sunak says. ‘In the first year I could never get this.’
Was lockdown policy decided on unexplained models, and had the British government failed to ask the basic questions? Sunak seems to suggest, yes.
“This is the problem,’ he says. ‘If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed.”
When the Omicron variant came out and SAGE again made dire predictions, Sunak was able to avert second lockdown only because by that time, he decided to find other sources of information. He turned, among others, to his former JP Morgan colleagues, whose models suggested the casualty rate would remain manageable.
Asked if there were lessons to be learnt, Sunak said ‘We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did,”
“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.’ How different? ‘We’d probably have made different decisions on things like schools, for example.”
And could the government have acted any differently, given the public pressure for lockdown?
Sunak says ‘We helped shape that: with the fear messaging, empowering the scientists and not talking about the trade-offs.’