Rishi Sunak’s evidence to the Covid Inquiry was a refreshing change from the back-covering and the pro-lockdown groupthink that has characterised the appearances of so many others at Lady Hallett’s hearings. The inquiry remains weirdly obsessed with Eat Out to Help Out – which has received an excessive amount of attention for a policy that was only in place for a month. But Mr Sunak still managed to make a number of important observations that, if it has any interest in being taken seriously, should inform the inquiry’s future investigations.
The Prime Minister pushed back against the assumption that deficiencies in the pandemic response were necessarily all due to political dysfunction. Should the inquiry’s lead counsel Hugo Keith not be more interested in the quality of the scientific advice, how and why it changed, and whether there was a problem with a lack of intellectual diversity among scientists in Sage?
Mr Sunak then raised the issue of government communications, arguing that, on home-working, the public had not understood “sufficiently clearly that they should go to work only if they could not work from home”. More generally, the effects of government messaging, criticised as “Project Fear”, deserve much greater attention. Did it put people off having non-Covid illnesses examined by an NHS they were told was about to collapse? What was the impact on mental health of manipulative demands like “don’t kill your gran”?
Perhaps most remarkable was Mr Keith’s reply when the Prime Minister mentioned one of the consequences of lockdown: the debt incurred and the higher taxes that have followed. Mr Keith chose to shut this discussion down. “Let’s please not go into the issue of tax burdens,” he said.
Why not? Lockdown is not solely to blame for the UK’s economic and fiscal mess. We are paying the price for decades during which governments failed to improve public sector productivity, boost growth, or put debt on a more sustainable trajectory. But the inquiry cannot be allowed to exist in a vacuum, where the lockdown measures are divorced from their real-world consequences.
How many other subjects does the inquiry not want to hear about? It has already shown that it is not interested in whether Covid was developed in a lab. Perhaps Lady Hallett and Mr Keith could assemble a list of the topics they do deem worthy of discussion, and save witnesses the bother of trying to put forward a more balanced perspective.