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Rishi Sunak to be quizzed on Covid Eat Out scheme at Covid inquiry before facing critical Rwanda vote

Rishi Sunak will face allegations his Eat Out to Help Out scheme fuelled the spread of coronavirus as he appears before the Covid inquiry on Monday.

The Prime Minister is expected to be grilled on whether he believed scientists were handed too much power, and whether insufficient consideration was given to the impact of lockdowns.

His questioning by lead counsel Hugo Keith KC in west London on Monday morning will kick off a crucial week for Mr Sunak, as he faces a crunch vote on his Rwanda legislation on Tuesday.

Tory MPs from both wings of Mr Sunak's bitterly divided party are due to convene ahead of the vote to discuss their verdicts on the Prime Minister's Rwanda legislation, in a major test for his leadership.

WhatsApp messages shown to the Covid Inquiry have revealed Government scientists referred to Mr Sunak as “Dr Death, the Chancellor”, over concerns about his push to keep economic activity going while leading the Treasury during the pandemic.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove defended Mr Sunak on Sunday, arguing there was no “public critique” of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme before its launch in August 2020.

But Professor Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, is said to have privately referred to the scheme to boost the restaurant industry as “eat out to help out the virus”.

Sir Patrick Vallance, who was chief scientific adviser when the idea was introduced, said he and Sir Chris could not recall being consulted in advance about the scheme that cost hundreds of millions of pounds.

Giving evidence to Baroness Hallett’s inquiry, Sir Patrick said the scheme was “highly likely” to have fuelled deaths.

Mr Gove argued the policy was announced a month before it was implemented and during this time it was “not the case that there was a public critique”.

“It was an effective way of ensuring that the hospitality industry was supported through a very difficult period, and it was entirely within the broad outlines of rules about social mixing that prevailed at the time,” he told Sky’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips programme.

The plan formed part of Mr Sunak’s summer economic update on July 8, 2020, and provided 50 per cent off the cost of food and/or non-alcoholic drinks.

Former deputy chief medical officer Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam said the scheme “didn’t feel sensible” because it was encouraging exactly what officials had been trying to stop in previous months.

One of Sir Patrick’s diary entries recorded Dominic Cummings, who was Boris Johnson’s chief adviser in Downing Street at the time, saying Mr Sunak “thinks just let people die and that’s OK”.

It is understood that the inquiry has shared with its core participants an interview Mr Sunak did with the Spectator magazine in August last year.

In it, Mr Sunak claimed he “wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off” between the economic and social impacts of lockdowns and their benefits to suppressing the virus.

He discussed the “problem” of handing power to scientists, adding: “If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed.”

Mr Sunak may also face questions over his WhatsApp messages, or lack of them.

He has reportedly told the inquiry that “having changed my phone a number of times over the last three years” he no longer has access to the app.

Lawyers representing bereaved families from the four UK nations will also question Mr Sunak, as will long Covid groups and the Trades Union Congress.

Former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance giving evidence at the Covid Inquiry (PA Media)
Former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance giving evidence at the Covid Inquiry (PA Media)

The union’s assistant general secretary Kate Bell said: “The Prime Minister must come clean about why these decisions were taken – especially when senior government advisers were warning that people couldn’t afford to stay home when sick.

“The failure to provide proper financial support was an act of self-sabotage that left millions brutally exposed to the pandemic.”

Meanwhile, Mr Sunak is facing a major test for his leadership as Conservative MPs are set to meet at the start of this week to discuss his Rwanda legislation.

The European Research Group of hardline Brexiteers will first hold a summit on the measure to revive the asylum policy with other factions on the Conservative right on Monday.

Veteran MP Sir Bill Cash will present the findings of his so-called “star chamber” of lawyers, before they discuss how to vote on the Prime Minister’s Bill on Tuesday.

But Sir Bill has already signalled that they do not believe the proposed law is fit for purpose to get the grounded £290 million scheme up and running, as it stands.

Then the more moderate wing of One Nation Conservatives will hold a separate evening meeting in Parliament before releasing a statement on their judgment.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (PA Wire)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (PA Wire)

Mr Sunak and top ministers including Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron have been engaging with MPs over the weekend in order to quell any rebellion.

The Prime Minister has tried to find a middle ground, in response to the Supreme Court finding that plans to send asylum seekers who arrive on small boats to Rwanda are unlawful.

But some on the right believe it does not go far enough in casting aside international law, while moderates have concerns about its legal impact and about ordering courts to deem Rwanda a “safe” country.

Mr Sunak has told MPs the Conservatives must “unite or die”, but it is unclear whether they will heed his warnings, as some of his possible successors court limelight.

Tuesday is the first opportunity for the Commons to vote on the legislation, in what is called a second reading. A government Bill has not been defeated at this stage since 1986.

Far more common are defeats and amendments at later stages, but Mr Sunak only needs a rebellion of 28 Tories to see his majority destroyed as Labour will vote against it.

A legal assessment for the Government has given it only a “50 per cent at best” chance of successfully getting flights to Kigali off next year.

But Cabinet minister Michael Gove said on Sunday the Bill is “legally sound” and called it “tough and robust” while signalling an openness to possible improvements.

However, a No 10 source echoed Mr Sunak by saying there is only an “inch” between the current policy and an overriding of elements of the European Convention on Human Rights, that he says would see the Rwandan government reject it.

“This is the strongest possible piece of legislation to get Rwanda operational,” they added.