Rishi Sunak has been accused of trying to “rewrite history” after he claimed the harms of lockdown were ignored, meaning curbs on people’s freedoms may have gone on too long and been overly strict.
The Conservative leadership hopeful was criticized for his account of the discussions at the heart of government when he was chancellor amid frantic attempts to curb the spread of the virus and avoid the NHS becoming overwhelmed.
Sunak said he was, in effect, blocked from raising concerns about the negative “trade-offs” of lockdown, such as the surgery backlog and most children being home schooled – and too much effort was put into peddling a “fear narrative”.
Minutes of meetings held by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) often did not reflect the criticisms made of certain policies, Sunak added.
His comments were disputed by senior figures who were in Downing Street during the Covid crisis, who said the downsides were considered but lockdown had been the “best option available”.
Dominic Cummings, the former No 10 chief of staff who turned against his former boss to help bring Boris Johnson down, said Sunak “seems to be suffering … from rewrite-history-syndrome”.
He called Sunak’s comments, made in an interview with the Spectator magazine, “dangerous rubbish”, saying the article “reads like a man whose epicly [sic] bad campaign has melted his brain and he’s about to quit politics”.
Members of Sage who advised the government on Covid restrictions also offered a fierce rebuttal to Sunak’s attack, saying it had been up to ministers to decide on policy.
With just over a week left in the Conservative leadership contest, Sunak is trailing behind rival Liz Truss in polls of party members.
Sunak’s position is well established as a cabinet “hawk” who pushed back against restrictions advocated for by “doves” – such as the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, and Michael Gove, who was Cabinet Office minister at the time.
In the Spectator interview, Sunak said that in December 2021, when he flew back from California to pressure the prime minister not to reintroduce restrictions over Christmas that “I just told him it’s not right: we shouldn’t do this”.
He said there was a lack of frank discussion about the harms of lockdown as far back as March 2020, when the first national “stay at home” order was issued.
“I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off,” Sunak said. “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.’
“Those meetings were literally me around that table, just fighting. It was incredibly uncomfortable every single time.”
Sunak said he tried to push back against the “fear narrative”. Recalling the posters showing Covid patients on ventilators, the MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire said it was “wrong to scare people like that”.
For a “very long time”, Sunak claimed, Sage did not realize a Treasury official tuned in to their calls. “She was great because it meant that she was sitting there, listening to their discussions,” he said.
When dissenting voices were omitted from official minutes, Sunak said his mole would tell him: “’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,” Sunak added.
One big lesson was that “we shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did”, Sunak said. “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.”
Pressed on how different, Sunak said: “We’d probably have made different decisions on things like schools, for example.” Lockdowns could have been “shorter, different, quicker”, he said.
As well as attracting criticism from Cummings, the comments were also attacked by Lee Cain, who was director of communications in Downing Street until November 2020.
“Huge admirer of Rishi Sunak but his position on lockdown is simply wrong,” Cain tweeted. He said it was “misleading to suggest we weren’t having those conversations”.
In 10, the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Treasury “met multiple times daily and discussed the trade-offs,” Cain insisted.
“We all knew lockdown was a blunt instrument that had many downsides but in a world without vaccinations it was the best option available.
“The alternative was to ‘let Covid rip’, which would have killed tens of thousands and left the NHS in total collapse. Imagine Lombardy, only for months on end. The idea we would have been in a better state to deal with the issues the NHS has faced in recovery is for the birds.”
Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine who sat on Sage, said ministers were the ones responsible for decision making, “so if one member of cabinet thinks that scientific advice was too ’empowered’, then it is the criticism of their colleagues rather than the scientists”.
“The Sage meetings were about the science, not the policy options, and the minutes reflect the scientific consensus at the time,” Medley added.
Ian Boyd, a professor at the University of St Andrews and member of Sage in the pandemic, told the Guardian: “Members [of the committee] were acutely aware of the trade-offs associated with implementing specific actions. To the extent that it was possible with the information available at the time, these trade-offs were included within the uncertainty expressed in the advice.”
And John Womersley, professor at the college of science and engineering at the University of Edinburgh, said Sunak’s comments would “play well with a certain section of the Conservative base”.
Pressed on whether he thought there could have been an alternative to lockdown, Sunak told BBC Radio 4’s World at One on Thursday that “it’s hard to know”.
“It’s right that we should have all the information to make these difficult decisions and think about the trade-offs involved,” he added.
Sunak sought to play down speculation that Truss would be the runaway winner of the race, which ends on 5 September, saying “there’s still everything to play for”.
A No 10 spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic, public health, education and the economy were central to the difficult decisions made on Covid restrictions to protect the British public from an unprecedented novel virus.
“At every point, ministers made collective decisions which considered a wide range of expert advice available at the time in order to protect public health.”