Boris Johnson has told the Covid inquiry that he assumed Rishi Sunak’s “eat out to help out” hospitality scheme had been cleared by government scientists and was surprised to learn later that it had not.
In evidence that could pose notable difficulties for Sunak when he appears before the inquiry on Monday, Johnson said it would have been “normal” for advisers such as Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance to have been briefed, and he had assumed this was the case.
Johnson denied that his government had locked down too late in the spring and autumn of 2020, saying other measures were already in place and that new variants of Covid “hadn’t been budgeted for”.
Asked about Sunak’s scheme, which subsidised people to eat in person at restaurants and cafes, Johnson said the plan was “within the budget of risk” given lower infection rates that summer.
“At the time it was aired to me, it was not presented to me as an acceleration but something to make sense of the freedoms we were already giving,” he said.
Earlier evidence revealed that the scheme was not discussed in advance with scientific advisers, and that even Matt Hancock, then the health secretary, only learned about it on the day it was presented to cabinet. Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, referred to the scheme later as “eat out to help the virus”.
Questioned by Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry counsel, Johnson said he thought that Whitty and Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, “must” have know about the scheme.
“I’m fairly confident that it was discussed several times in meetings in which I believe they must have been present,” Johnson said. “I don’t understand how something so well publicised as that could have been smuggled past the scientific advice – I don’t see how that could have happened.”
When Keith pointed out that even in his witness statement to the inquiry, Johnson said he assumed the scheme had been discussed with Vallance and Whitty, the former prime minister replied: “I said that in my statement because I frankly assumed that it must have been discussed with them. And I’m perplexed as to how something as significant as that could have got through.”
Johnson’s testimony puts yet more pressure on Sunak, who is confirmed to be giving evidence to the inquiry on Monday.
Earlier evidence was stated that the £850m eat out to help out scheme was introduced without any consultation, leaving Vallance and others “blind-sided”.
Sunak will face questions on why in his own witness statement, a short extract of which had been read out by Keith during earlier evidence, he said: “I do not recall any concerns about the scheme being expressed during ministerial discussions, including those attended by the CMO [Whitty] and CSA [Vallance].”
During his evidence, Vallance politely but firmly contradicted this, saying he would have been “very surprised” if Sunak had not known about scientific worries.
Sunak has been presented in evidence more widely as being overly gung-ho in wanting to open up the economy, with another senior scientist referring to him in a disparaging message at the time as “Dr Death the chancellor”.