UK leadership candidate Sunak attacks COVID lockdown response

UK leadership candidate Sunak attacks COVID lockdown response
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  • Former finance minister says negative aspects of quarantines have been suppressed
  • Altar said scientists were given too much influence.
  • PM candidate says government is trying to scare the public

LONDON, August 25 (Reuters) – Former finance minister Rishi Sunak, one of two candidates vying to become Britain’s next prime minister, has criticized the way outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it was “a mistake to empower”. “The downsides of scientists and quarantines have been suppressed,” he said.

The ruling Conservative Party is choosing a new leader after Johnson was forced to resign after dozens of ministers resigned to protest a series of scandals and missteps. Party members are voting to elect Sunak or Secretary of State Liz Truss, who will take over next month.

Opinion polls show that Sunak is behind in the race. Addressing the pandemic has become an issue, with Truss claiming this month that she will never approve another lockdown again and that as commerce minister at the time she was not involved in making key decisions about how to respond.

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Sunak said the government was “wrong to scare people” about the coronavirus. He said officials in Johnson’s office were barred from discussing “trade-offs” of imposing coronavirus-related restrictions, such as the impact on missed doctor’s appointments and the extension of waiting lists for healthcare at the state-run National Health Service.

“The script was to never accept them,” he told Spectator magazine. “The scenario was: ‘oh, no trades, because doing it for our health is good for the economy’.

Sunak said scientists in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, who are helping to respond to the epidemic, have been given a lot of influence by ministers in decision-making, such as the closure of schools and daycare centers.

Sunak said that at the start of the pandemic, basic modeling demands were ignored when scientists were presented with scenarios of what would happen if lockdown restrictions weren’t enforced or extended.

Sunak said it was unfair to blame civil servants because ministers were chosen to make decisions.

“If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed,” he said.

Altar was hugely popular at the start of the pandemic because as finance minister at the time, he launched a leave program that kept many people on the payroll even when quarantines meant they couldn’t work.


When asked why public opinion polls show public willingness to quarantine the country, Sunak said, “We’ve helped shape it: with messages of fear.”

Sunak claimed that it was wrong for the government to post posters showing patients on ventilators, and that the Cabinet Office was “very upset” when he delivered a speech in September 2020 urging people to “live without fear”.

The UK under Johnson was slower than most of its European counterparts in early 2020. After experiencing some of the highest death rates at the start of the pandemic, it was one of the first major economies to reopen afterwards.

Asked about Sunak’s remarks, a government spokesperson defended her record on COVID, saying the economy and children’s education were at the center of the difficult decisions made during the pandemic.

Sunak, who resigned from the Johnson government last month, suggested that schools could remain open during the pandemic. He said that he tried to voice his opposition to the closure of schools at a meeting and that he “became very emotional about it”.

Then there was a great silence,” he said. “It was the first time someone had said that. I was very angry.”

Locking could have been “shorter” or had a “different” approach, he said.

A public inquiry examining the government’s preparedness as well as the public health and economic response to the pandemic is expected to begin gathering evidence next year.

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Reporting Andrew MacAskill Editing Kate Holton and Frances Kerry

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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