During the proceedings of the Covid Inquiry yesterday it was revealed that professor Chris Whitty, then the chief medical officer, referred to the “Eat out to help out” scheme as “Eat out to help out the virus”.
The scheme, launched by the Treasury and fronted by then-chancellor Rishi Sunak, subsidised meals in August 2020 in a bid to boost the hospitality industry.
The revelation at the inquiry came after Hugo Keith KC, counsel for the inquiry, pointed out that in the notebook of Imran Shafi, Boris Johnson’s private secretary for public services at the time, he referred to the “Eat out to help out” scheme as “Eat out to help out the virus”.
When Keith asked if it was Professor Whitty who used the term, Shafi confirmed that was correct.
Giving evidence to the inquiry on an earlier occasion, the British Medical Association (BMA) said the government failed to “provide clear, consistent public health messaging” throughout the pandemic, including on the former chancellor’s flagship initiative to help pubs and restaurants.
It said: “The Eat Out to Help Out initiative encouraged social mixing and confused public health messaging during 2020, suggesting that it was safe for people to socialise before vaccines were available and when the risks of Covid-19 remained high.”
The exchange took place on 20 September 2020, with the message sent by Dame McLean.
Lead counsel Hugo Keith asked Professor John Edmunds whether the comments could have been made in relation to the “eat out to help out” scheme, championed by Sunak, which ran in August 2020.
Professor Edmunds replied: “Honestly, it’s so long ago I wouldn’t know, but it could well be.”
Naomi Fulop, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, responded at the time: “This inquiry has made clear that there was absolutely no consultation with the government’s scientific advisers on Eat Out to Help Out, that it contributed to the loss of thousands of lives, put unnecessary pressure on the NHS and plunged the country into a brutal second lockdown.
“It’s unbearable to think that if it wasn’t for Rishi Sunak’s reckless, unscientific and callous approach, my mum might still be with me.
“When our current chief scientific adviser has referred to our prime minister as ‘Dr Death’, how can any of us have faith in our government if another pandemic strikes?”.
The Covid inquiry also heard yesterday that Boris Johnson had a 10-day break in February 2020 during which he appeared to receive no messages from his team at No 10 about coronavirus.
The claim made by Hugo Keith KC was not denied by Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary at the time.
It was also revealed in a note from the diary of Shafi, Boris Johnson asked why damage was being inflicted on the economy during the pandemic “for people who will die anyway soon” in a meeting with Rishi Sunak.
The note was from a meeting during which Johnson was believed to have said: “We’re killing the patient to tackle the tumour. Large ppl [taken to mean large numbers of people] who will die, why are we destroying economy for people who will die anyway soon.”
Shafi told the inquiry he thought it was Johnson who made the comments. It came after a series of diary entries and WhatsApp messages suggested the low regard in which the former Tory leader was held by senior advisers.
In a WhatsApp message seen by the inquiry from Whitehall’s highest ranking civil servant, Simon Case, he complained that Johnson “cannot lead” and wanted to “let it rip” when it came crucial choices over how the UK should handle Covid-19.
Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.