The 42-year-old former minister who was in charge at No. 11 Downing Street at the time revealed the behind-the-scenes goings on in the corridors of power for the first time in an interview with ‘The Spectator’. While he does not argue that lockdown was a mistake, Sunak does reveal his many misgivings, a lack of proper factoring in of the trade-offs involved in completely locking down society and suppression of dissenting views within government.
“In every brief, we tried to say: let’s stop the ‘fear’ narrative. It was always wrong from the beginning. I constantly said it was wrong,” he told the news magazine’s editor.
Sunak was also critical of the public health posters plastered around the country at the time showing Covid patients on ventilators because “it was wrong to scare people like that”.
The British Indian Tory MP for Richmond in Yorkshire, who is going head to head with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in the party’s leadership contest, reiterated that his intention to speak out now was not point a finger of blame and name anyone specific but to highlight the importance of learning lessons from the decisions that were made over the course of 2020 and 2021.
As the finance minister between February 2020 and July 2022, Sunak was the man in charge of the economic response and claims that ministers were not given enough information to scrutinise analysis produced by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – a group of independent experts advising the government on Covid related measures.
“We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did. 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…We’d probably have made different decisions on things like schools, for example,” he said.
Sunak claims to have been among the few dissenting voices within Johnson’s Cabinet at the time and eventually began turning to wider analysis – including from his alma mater Stanford University and JP Morgan research data – to inform his own views.
“I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off,” he reveals, adding that ministers were reportedly briefed by No. 10 Downing on how to handle questions about the side-effects of lockdown.
“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 recalls.
He shares his recollections of one particular government meeting where he got “very emotional” about education: “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.”
That he was among the senior ministers fiercely against a fourth lockdown when the Omicron variant was surging in the UK at the end of last year was already known. In this latest interview, he reflects on how he flew back early from a trip to California to meet his then boss, Johnson.
I just told him it’s not right: we shouldn’t do this,” he reveals.
Asked if he threatened to resign if there was another lockdown, he said that he used the “closest formulation of words” to imply that threat. Sunak then lobbied other ministers in the Cabinet and built a wider network against another lockdown.
“I remember telling him [Johnson]: 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 [ministers] Michael [Gove] and Saj [Sajid Javid],” he said.
A public inquiry into the UK government’s handling of the pandemic has been set up, with public hearings set to begin next year. But Sunak believes lessons can and should be learnt right away and it would be up to the new leader at Downing Street to take those calls.
“The leader matters. It matters who the person at the top is,” said Sunak, who continues to address hustings events in the campaign to win over Conservative Party members’ votes in the online and postal ballot that closes on September 2. The winner will be declared on September 5, when either Sunak or Truss will go on to take charge as the head of the government.
Downing Street said throughout the pandemic, public health, education, and the economy were “central” to the difficult decisions made on the lockdown 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,” a spokesperson said.