Rishi Sunak’s Treasury was referred to as ‘the pro-death squad’, Covid inquiry hears

Boris Johnson called the Treasury “the pro-death squad” as the government sought to build support for a loosening of Covid restrictions, the Covid inquiry heard today.

Citing a diary entry by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, Dermot Keating, a counsel to the official Covid inquiry, said Johnson referred to the Treasury, then helmed by Rishi Sunak as chancellor, as the “pro-death squad”.

The then-prime minister and others inside Downing Street were said to have used the language.

Although, when the language was presented before Stuart Glassborow, who was Johnson’s deputy principal private secretary at the time, he told the hearing: “As I said, this refers to meeting a couple of years ago. I don’t recall that specific phrase. 

“I see that this is from Patrick’s notebook. I don’t dispute what’s recorded but I don’t recall the phrase at all”.

The language was recorded in Vallance’s diary as being used in a meeting in January 2021, when Johnson was setting out his ambitions for the gradual easing of Covid restrictions

The entry said: “The PM is on record as saying that he wants tier 3, 1 March; tier 2, 1 April; tier 1, 1 May; and nothing by September, and he ends up by saying the team must bring in ‘the pro death squad from HMT”.

The inquiry also heard that decision-making in Downing Street was “a bit of a Punch and Judy” because of the “enormously chaotic tug of war” between the Treasury and scientists. 

Another section of Vallance’s diary stated: “Interviewees involved in discussions over social restrictions, variously described central decision-making for much of 2020 as ‘a bit of a Punch and Judy’.

“An enormously chaotic tug of war and simply not a proper bringing together of science, public health and economic considerations”.

Last month, a WhatsApp message was revealed to the Covid inquiry which showed Dame Angela McLean, chief governmental scientific adviser, referred to the then-chancellor Rishi Sunak as “Dr Death the chancellor”.

Subsequently, lead counsel Hugo Keith asked Professor John Edmunds whether the comments, which took place in an exchange on 20 September 2020, were 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: “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”.

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