Following the popularity of my WhatsApp article of March, I consider the current prime minister’s missing phone messages, his role in mis-managing the pandemic, and his prospects as a credible leader.
Where’s that phone?
WhatsAppGate continues. As chancellor, Sunak was a key decision-maker during the pandemic, alongside Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, and Michael Gove. The Covid Inquiry has asked Sunak to produce his WhatsApp messages from that period. But he says he can’t oblige because he has since changed phones and has no backup. Make of that what you will.
In these unstable times, we scrutinise our leaders for signals that they have our best interests at heart. Does Sunak pass this test and might he be concealing his WhatsApp tracks?
Sunak presents as a steady moderate who promises us “integrity and accountability” and is striving to put his party back on course after its ‘wild panto’ phase. But closer inspection reveals a man who subscribes to a libertarian, deregulatory ideology, shared by right-wing factions such as the European Research Group and Liz Truss. Lockdowns were an anathema to these ideologues who derided them as “dystopian”, “draconian” weapons of state control, “devoid of any commitment to liberty”, including the freedom to do business and make profit.
In Sunak, we also see a man insulated from the experience of the ordinary people he oversees, whose intellectual focus and priorities are narrowly economic; a financial, bean-counting entrepreneur steeped in the expectations of wealth; a member of the Prada elite, unsure how to use a credit card, who can deliver the ‘compassion’ script up to a point but, at key moments, displays a knee-jerk, parochial enthusiasm for prioritising business enterprise over scientific advice.
Sunak was rightly praised for his furlough scheme which saved many businesses from economic collapse during Covid. But there was a dangerous and reckless limit to his charity. At various Covid crunch points, he took the same cavalier, hugely damaging, approach to public health that Truss took to our economic welfare.
The pandemic resulted in nearly a quarter of a million deaths. This is, in part, because the government evidently believed that, contrary to the World Health Organization’s suppression policy, it wasn’t possible to suppress the virus. Also, pandemic preparations were severely curtailed to make way for Brexit. The pandemic preparedness team, for example, was unable to meet for a year. A nation woefully unprepared for a virus, that allegedly couldn’t be suppressed anyway, provided a conducive arena for Sunak’s belligerence.
Eat Out To Peg Out
Sunak’s stunning tone-deafness to the gravity of Covid is illustrated by his ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme. Introduced in August 2020, it aimed to keep the hospitality industry solvent by enticing people back to restaurants with cheap meal deals.
Quite apart from its consequences, the mere communication of this idea from an authority figure such as the chancellor sent a dangerous signal to the nation that “it’s ok to let your guard down”. It wilfully bypassed the fact that 45,000 people had just died and instead “encouraged them to “take an epidemiological risk”. Public anxiety was countered with sweet talk – the scheme, we were told, will both:
“protect livelihoods … and customers through the use of covid safety measures such as screens, social distancing, and reduced capacity.”
But this ‘pig in lipstick’ defence is hopeless. A child could figure out that luring people into close proximity during a highly contagious pandemic would increase the incidence of the virus. This is blindingly obvious.
Sunak’s scheme not only projected a dangerous message but had dire consequences. Studies by Thiemo Fetzer of the CAGE Economic Research Centre found that areas with higher take-up of restaurant diners had significantly more infection cases after only one week, and that the scheme may have been responsible for up to 17% of all new Covid infections. This tallies with Public Health England data showing a 20% surge in the infections traceable to food outlets:
“The public health and indirect economic costs of Eat Out to Help Out vastly outstrip its short-term economic benefits.” (Fetzer)
Hiding from the facts
Crucially, Sunak didn’t consult the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) about his ‘Eat Out’ scheme despite the fact that, or perhaps precisely because, they were thoroughly opposed to it, as Catherine Noakes of SAGE’s modelling team confirms. Nor was Sunak prepared publicly to acknowledge his scheme’s failure. Hancock’s WhatsApp messages state that:
“I’ve kept it out of the news but it’s serious … Yes, we’ve told Treasury – we’ve been protecting them in the comms & thankfully it’s hasn’t bubble[d] up.”
So, evidently Sunak knew about the link between his scheme and increased Covid spread, and he also knew this fact had been hushed up.
Breaker of circuit-breaks
By September 2020, a second bigger Covid wave, possibly enhanced by Sunak’s own Eat Out scheme, was fast approaching. To curb the spread of infection, SAGE, represented by Professor John Edmunds proposed a circuit-breaker lockdown:
“Not acting now to reduce cases will result in a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences in terms of direct covid-related deaths and the ability of the health service to meet needs.”
The circuit-breaker was supported by Hancock, Gove and Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. But Sunak resisted the plan. To get backing for his resistance, Sunak invited prominent lockdown sceptics to Downing Street. One was Anders Tegnell, the architect of Sweden’s controversial but unsuccessful anti-lockdown policy. Another was Sunetra Gupta, author of the Great Barrington Declaration which advocates herd immunity. The declaration is linked with Georg von Opel, a Conservative Party donor, also with climate denialists such as the American Institute for Economic Research and Donald Trump. It was described as a ‘global chicken pox party’ approach which included signatories with fake names and was thoroughly discredited by the scientific community.
But Sunak won the argument, and the circuit breaker plan was cancelled. Cases surged and, on 31October 2020, a second lockdown had to be introduced to avert a “medical and moral disaster”. According to the Resolution Foundation, winter lockdown delays in 2020 caused up to 27,000 additional deaths.
Sunak’s defence was that a circuit-breaker would be “bad for livelihoods and the economy“. But he paid no heed to the fact that, without this intervention, Covid infection and fatalities would increase, and so need containment by even longer lockdowns that resulted in even more economic damage.
In February 2022 Sunak also tried to withdraw funding for the Covid surveillance and testing system but he was overruled. In this and other interventions, Sunak flew in the face of scientific expertise at the time. His chilling contempt for the scientific community is clear from the lessons he told The Spectator in August 2022 he’d learnt from the pandemic:
“We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists … If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed.”
I’ve no idea whether the language in Sunak’s WhatsApp messages, if revealed, would show the blistering contempt for the nation that we’ve already reported in West England Bylines.
But his pandemic track record certainly explains why he doesn’t pass the test posed earlier about ‘priorities’ and why he might want to keep his WhatsApp messages under wraps.
Sunak’s stated role as ‘provider of economic balance’ in the government’s decision-making was something of a subterfuge. His track record shows not balance but a dogged determination to resist Covid control strategies. His cossetting wealth and libertarian distaste for state restrictions on business freedoms rendered him dangerously out of touch with the suffering being endured by ordinary people.
Like other lockdown sceptics, he tried to justify his position by focusing on ‘lockdown harms’ and ‘trade offs’, whilst ignoring the true harms of Covid itself and the fundamental principle that, in the immediate term, survival is even more important than freedom and the economy.
In promoting this approach, Sunak displayed:
- Contempt for scientific advice and preparedness to overrule it when it conflicted with his agenda.
- Willingness to use suspect methods to get his way that included approving of dodgy organisations and censorship of key data.
- Failure to grasp that his interventions would result in avoidable fatalities and further lockdown restrictions.
So, the question we need to ask is:
“Do we want a leader who holds scientific evidence in contempt and who presses on with harmful policies the consequences of which he colludes in concealing?”
If further pandemics or other crises happen, Sunak evidently cannot be trusted to prioritise our welfare. His ideological agenda takes precedence over care for the people he serves and over scientific advice on how that’s best achieved. It’s a horrifying thought but, had Sunak been PM in 2020, he would have done even more harm than Johnson did.
We want to hear your views. Please send any comments to [email protected]