Lee Cain, who was director of communications in Downing Street during the early phase of the Covid crisis, says Rishi Sunak’s comments about the lockdown policy (see 9.22am and 9.47am) are “simply wrong”.
But Sunak is not saying lockdown should not have happened, as Cain suggests. He is just saying that it was implemented too rigidly, and perhaps for too long, and that more consideration should have been given to the downsides.
John Swinney, Scotland’s deputy first minister, has insisted he has “no legal standing” to negotiate a deal to end strike action that has left rubbish piled up on the streets of Edinburgh, PA Media reports. PA says:
Swinney met union leaders on Wednesday evening after action by council cleansing staff spread from Edinburgh to other parts of the country.
He said afterwards that while he is “determined to be helpful”, a deal to end the pay row has to be reached by unions and employers at local government body Cosla.
Unions have warned their action will escalate if an agreement cannot be reached to increase workers’ wages.
Cleansing staff at 14 councils in Scotland are now out on strike, with unions targeting schools and early years centres next – with a three-day walkout planned for next month which could see some schools forced to close.
Speaking on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland this morning, Swinney said:
What I have encouraged Cosla to do is to enter into intense negotiations with the trade unions, the trade unions want those intense negotiations to help to resolve matters. I will be as helpful as I possibly can be to try to bring agreement together. …
I can’t negotiate this agreement, I am not the employer, I have no legal standing to negotiate.
Layla Moran, the Lib Dem MP and chair of the all-party parliamantary group of coronavirus, says that, contrary to what Rishi Sunak claims in his Spectator interview (see 9.22am and 9.47am), the government paid too little attention to the scientific advice during Covid, not too much. She says:
In his desperation to salvage his floundering leadership ambitions, the former chancellor’s post-match punditry ignores that it was his government’s indecisiveness and unscientific approach which gave us the worst of all worlds; the biggest economic hit in the G7, a tragically high death toll, enormous NHS waiting lists and ironically, more time in lockdown.
Having been responsible for this mismanagement and fined for breaking his own rules, Rishi Sunak has nothing more to say to us about the pandemic beyond apologising and submitting himself and all relevant evidence to the official Covid inquiry which must report before the next general election.
Moran is referring to claims that the Covid death toll would have much lower if the government had locked down earlier, in March 2020, and again at the end of that year.
These are from the Economist’s Matthew Holehouse on Rishi Sunak’s Spectator interview. (See 9.22am and 9.47am.)
Mark Harper, a former Tory chief whip who is backing Rishi Sunak in the leadership contest, has welcomed Sunak’s comments about lockdown. Harper chairs the Covid Recovery Group, which represents lockdown-sceptic Conservatives, and he told LBC:
All that I was doing from outside government, Rishi Sunak was doing inside government, was asking some questions about how we balance these things, how you trade it off and make the choices?
And the government was not being honest about that publicly. It was setting out that there were no choices, that you had to follow ‘The Science’, capitalised T, capitalised S, and dissenting voices were not allowed.
When I raised questions – and we questioned the modelling – people in No 10 briefed out to journalists that we deliberately wanted to kill thousands of people which was clearly nonsense. We were simply asking questions to get better decisions, and I’m pleased that Rishi Sunak shone a bit of a light on what was going on in government at the time.
Albanian police could be brought to the UK to observe migrant arrivals and pass on intelligence in a bid to tackle Channel crossings, PA Media reports. PA says:
The plan, part of a deal struck between Priti Patel, the home secretary, and the Albanian government, may see officers taken to the Kent coast to be present while migrants are processed and assist UK authorities with information, the Home Office said.
But it is yet to be confirmed when this could take effect.
Patel and Bledi Cuci, Albania’s minister for interior affairs, also pledged to speed up removals of Albanians with no right to be in the UK from next week when they discussed the situation on Tuesday night.
Checks on migrants arriving by boat who are suspected of being Albanian will be fast-tracked, it is understood.
Adverts in Albanian on Facebook and Instagram were also launched on Wednesday to try and deter people from making the journey.
According to the Home Office, Albania is a “safe and prosperous country” and many nationals “are travelling through multiple countries to make the journey to the UK” before making “spurious asylum claims when they arrive”.
The story was briefed last night and makes the Daily Mail splash this morning.
The Home Office briefed the initiative ahead of the publication this morning of figures on irregular migration to the UK in the year ending June 2022. It shows the number of people arriving by small boats across the Channel in the first six months of this year (12,747) was more than double the total for the same period last year (5,917).
The Home Office report says that more than half (51%) of small boat arrivals in the first half of this year were from just three countries: Albania (18%), Afghanistan (18%) and Iran (15%).
It also says “the number of Albanians arriving on small boats has increased substantially over the last quarter”.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, has rejected Rishi Sunak’s claim that scientists were wrongly “empowered” during the Covid pandemic. (See 9.47am.)
The proportion of top grades among GCSE results for 16-year-olds in England has fallen since last year, with the overall pass rate also down, after pupils whose education has been disrupted by the pandemic sat the first examinations in three years. Our full story is here.
And here is a full summary of what Rishi Sunak says about the handling of lockdown in his Spectator interview.
Sunak says that, at the start of lockdown, he was not allowed to acknowledge that the policy involved a trade-off, with advantages and disadvantages. He says:
I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off. 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.
He claims that ministers were even discouraged in private from acknowledging in the problems generated by lockdown. This is how Fraser Nelson, who interviewed Sunak, summarises what Sunak said on this.
If frank discussion was being suppressed externally, Sunak thought it all the more important that it took place internally. But that was not his experience. ‘I felt like no one talked,’ he says. ‘We didn’t talk at all about missed [doctor’s] appointments, or the backlog building in the NHS in a massive way. That was never part of it.’ When he did try to raise concerns, he met a brick wall. ‘Those meetings were literally me around that table, just fighting. It was incredibly uncomfortable every single time.’ He recalls one meeting where he raised education. ‘I was very emotional about it. I was like: “Forget about the economy. Surely we can all agree that kids not being in school is a major nightmare” or something like that. There was a big silence afterwards. It was the first time someone had said it. I was so furious.’
In fact, officials did devote considerable time to analysing the impact of lockdown. In July 2020 a 188-page report was produced explaining how lockdown increase excess deaths and illness over the long term. The report was later updated.
He says that, if he had been in charge, he would “just have had a more grown-up conversation with the country” about the advantages and disadvantages of lockdown.
In the early days, Sunak had an advantage. ‘The Sage people didn’t realise for a very long time that there was a Treasury person on all their calls. A lovely lady. She was great because it meant that she was sitting there, listening to their discussions.’
It meant he was alerted early to the fact that these all-important minutes of Sage meetings often edited out dissenting voices. His mole, he says, 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.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, would probably challenge this. He did admit in public that the scientists did not always agree, and as one of the chairs of Sage his job was to produce a consensus view.
Sunak says Sage had too much power. “This is the problem. If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed,” he says. Ironically, this is similar to Liz Truss’s stance on the Bank of England, which Sunak has criticised as a threat to the Bank’s independence.
I was like: ‘Summarise for me the key assumptions, on one page, with a bunch of sensitivities and rationale for each one.’ In the first year I could never get this.
Sunak told Nelson the Treasury would never take decisions based on unexplained modelling of this kind.
[Sunak] flew back early from a trip to California. By this time JP Morgan’s lockdown analysis was being emailed around among cabinet ministers like a samizdat paper, and they were ready to rebel. Sunak met Johnson. ‘I just told him it’s not right: we shouldn’t do this.’ He did not threaten to resign if there was another lockdown, ‘but I used the closest formulation of words that I could’ to imply that threat. Sunak then rang around other ministers and compared notes.
Normally, cabinet members were not kept in the loop as Covid-related decisions were being made – Johnson’s No. 10 informed them after the event, rather than consulting them. Sunak says he urged the PM to pass the decision to cabinet so that his colleagues could give him political cover for rejecting the advice of Sage. ‘I remember telling him: have the cabinet meeting. You’ll see. Everyone will be completely behind you … You don’t have to worry. I will be standing next to you, as will every other member of the cabinet, bar probably Michael [Gove] and Saj [Javid].’ As it was to prove.
Sunak says, if wrong decisions were taken, it was the fault of politicians (and the PM, he implies), not civil servants. He says:
All this blaming civil servants – I hate it. We are elected to run the country, not to blame someone else. If the apparatus is not there, then we change it.
[When things go well] it comes from the person at the top being able to make decisions properly – and understanding how to make good decisions.
The leader matters. It matters who the person at the top is.
This is the one passage in the interview that sounds most like implicit criticism of Liz Truss. She has repeatedly attacked civil servants, mainly for being in thrall to orthodox thinking and for being too “woke”.
Good morning. When Rishi Sunak quit as chancellor in July, he cited in his resignation letter two reasons why he could no longer serve Boris Johnson: Johnson’s approach to standards (a reference to the Chris Pincher scandal); and their different views on economic policy (which Sunak implied was more important). The Conservative leadership contest has largely focused on economics, with Sunak attacking Liz Truss unremittingly on the grounds that she is advocating the “too good to be true” economic approach championed by Johnson.
But, in an interview published today in the Spectator, Sunak reveals that he also disagreed with Johnson on probably the most important decision taken by the government. Sunak says he thought the lockdown went too far. This was reported to some extent at the time, but until now Sunak has never spoken about this in detail.
Essentially, he is making three arguments.
Sunak suggests Johnson let the lockdown go on for too long. He does not argue that the lockdown was a total mistake, but he says that if the government had been more willing to acknowledge the pros and cons of the policy, “we could be in a very different place”. He goes on:
We’d probably have made different decisions on things like schools, for example.
Asked if Britain could have avoided lockdown completely, like Sweden, he replied:
I don’t know, but it could have been shorter. Different. Quicker.
He says the government’s scientific advisers, in particular Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), were given too much power.
My colleague Nadeem Badshah has a story on the interview here.
Fraser Nelson, the Spectator editor, has long been one of the media figures more critical of lockdown, and in particular the Covid modelling used by Sage, and the magazine has plugged the interview heavily. Given that many Tory members were also sceptical of lockdown, it is surprising that Sunak did not choose to make these points earlier in the campaign. In his London Playbook briefing Emilio Casalicchio says Sunak did not plan an intervention on this now; he just agreed to be interviewed by the Specator, and Nelson asked about lockdown. Casalicchio also quotes a former No 10 official saying Sunak’s account of what happened behind the scenes was broadly accurate. The ex-official said:
This is a pretty fair account of what Rishi said and thought at the time. Sometimes he’d very forcefully argue his case. Other times he’d know the machine had already decided the outcome, so he would say less, while Matt [Hancock] and Michael [Gove] pushed against an open door for a very hardcore approach. The PM and Rishi both hated lockdowns. Rishi always understood, though, that the blame would rest with Boris if we got it wrong. He was as forceful as he could be given the circumstances.
In response to Sunak’s comments a Downing Street 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.
In his interview Sunak does not directly make the handling of Covid a leadership issue. He does not mention Liz Truss by name, although Fraser in his write-up says Truss “was silent throughout” (meaning that she did not join Sunak in speaking out against lockdown policy). But Truss was international trade secretary at the time, and so she was not part of the cabinet inner circle that decided Covid policy.
However Sunak does say in the interview that Covid was an example of why leadership matters. If things go well, “it comes from the person at the top being able to make decisions properly – and understanding how to make good decisions”, he says.
I will post more from the Sunak interview shortly.
Here is the agenda for the day.
12pm: Rishi Sunak takes part in a Facebook Q&A.
After 1pm: Sunak is due to be interviewed on Radio 4’s World at One.
7pm: The penultimate official Conservative party hustings takes place, in Norwich. TalkTV’s Julia Hartley-Brewer is hosting. It’s the 11th hustings. The final one takes place next Wednesday, in London.
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