WE HAVE all known that it was only a matter of time, eventually the truth would out and the chaos, cynicism, fear, self-preservation and hypocrisy around the decisions to introduce lockdowns would percolate up to the surface from the deep dark intestines of the Downing Street operation where they lurked.
The interview of Rishi Sunak by The Spectator editor, Fraser Nelson, is both revelatory and damning in equal measure. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer was a key player in the decisions that determined how our country responded to the Covid threat – so it is refreshing to hear his interpretation of how some of the policies were conceived (or cobbled together) – but forgive me if I cannot sanctify the late conversion to transparency and sense of responsibility that was clearly lacking when it was needed most.
Sunak has revealed now, how he had grave doubts about some of the decisions being taken, but did not act. Yes, there is a case for collective responsibility when decisions are made collectively – but by his own words Sunak implies he, the Chancellor, was being told, or at least shamed or emotionally blackmailed into what others wanted to do.
I say this with all candour as a former politician, indeed as a human being, one’s natural antennae should tell you that if something appears wrong it most likely is and you should question it scrupulously. If it does not stand up to one’s personal beliefs in personal or public conduct, then you have to step back and consider your position.
It is better to tender a resignation and retain dignity that allows one to come back than to keep one’s head down and carry on in an enterprise that does not seem right. It’s not as if Sunak needed the salary or pension.
This goes as much for football managers being told by their chairman who should play in the team on match day as it does for a politician participating in colossal decisions affecting tens of millions of people exercising their freedoms – such as being at liberty to see their loved ones. Sunak failed himself, his admirers and the country.
Moving on then to the admissions, or at least Rishi Sunak’s take on the situation as he faced it, we are now told that:
- The lead scientists in charge of our public health flip-flopped from one policy to the next on a scale resembling a belief in the Earth being a sphere to suddenly being converted to believing it is in fact flat.
- That while initially doubts were expressed that lockdowns might do more harm than good, these doubts were suppressed in the face of evidence to the point of exclusion.
- That the SAGE panel had its minutes doctored to remove dissenting voices or comment – and that he knew this because he had his own Treasury staffer listening into the committee conversations and reporting back to him. Did he not relay this to his colleagues?
- The turning point in accepting Lockdown was Neil Ferguson’s Imperial College Report that suggested 500,000 deaths without lockdown – but no comparative cost-benefit study or the impact on other citizens was prepared.
- Sunak and others were not allowed – by whom is not said – to discuss the collateral damage on other health priorities that were being abandoned, such as cancer patients. Not allowed – really?!
- When he raised education it was met with silence…
- Sunak was against the fear campaign, in particular he felt it would impact badly on the UK’s consumption-driven economy, discouraging people to re-engage and become economically active again.
- When Sunak asked for detail, say for a list of the assumptions for modelling, not even he could obtain it – SAGE had been elevated to a position of scientific supremacy not even the Chancellor could challenge.
- Even within the small group of four Ministers who were taking decisions on a daily basis (Michael Gove, Sunak, Dominic Raab and Matthew Hancock) he claims to have been a minority and together they did not let ministerial colleagues see the whole picture.
- That when it came down to it Sunak chose not to go against the PM rather than protect the general public.
It is also worth noting that for all the foregoing Sunak does not say Lockdowns should not have happened.
“Even now, Sunak doesn’t argue that lockdown was a mistake – just that the many downsides in health, the economy and society in general could have been mitigated if they had been openly discussed.”The Spectator, 27 August 2022
He offers no comment on whether the cost/benefit that he says was not done has since been undertaken by the Treasury. In fact, as it stands, the impression left in his interview is that the current (retiring) Government has not learned that lesson from March 2020 onwards.
I think the British public could be forgiving to our leaders over the first lockdown on the basis that no-one had a pre-determined response for Covid that could be said with confidence to be the ‘right’ response – remembering as I do the daily Sky broadcasts of what was going down in Northern Italy in the weeks preceding and how it horrified everyone.
As the months followed, however, it was clear quite quickly that the harm being done – and the harm that would be faced down the line from the early policy – was clearly wrong. Yet in his interview, and at the risk of being repetitive, Sunak says nothing – and crucially Fraser Nelson does not press the point.
I personally do not doubt that most of those with any say in the decision making started with the best of intentions to protect the public, show leadership and give reassurance that we could get through the frightening onslaught of the pandemic – but quickly the authoritarian reflexes of too many politicians and officials became the default position.
Interestingly the reports I have had from Recovery supporters that attended the Norwich hustings of the Conservative leadership run-off – held on Thursday after the Spectator interview was published online – have suggested Sunak was less contrite at the meeting than he was in that interview.
It remains to be seen what more Sunak has to say – possibly in evidence to the Public Inquiry – and what if other Ministers will challenge or contradict his recollections. One thing is certain, he will not be the last Minister to tell his story that will contradict the carefully created narrative. What is evident and is surely now beyond challenge is we, the public, have over the last two-plus years been lied to on a grand scale, in so many ways and at so many levels.
- For the Rishi Sunak interview go here: The lockdown files: Rishi Sunak on what we weren’t told
- For Fraser Nelson’s interpretation of what it means go here: Rishi Sunak is just the start. The great lockdown scandal is about to unravel
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Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and managing editor of the Recovery blog.