Former finance minister Rishi Sunak, one of two candidates vying to be Britain’s next prime minister, criticized outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it was a mistake to “empower” scientists and that the negative consequences of lockdowns were suppressed.
After dozens of ministers resigned in protest of a series of scandals and gaffes, Johnson was forced to resign as leader of the ruling Conservative Party. Party members will vote on whether Sunak or Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will take over as leader next month.
According to polls, Sunak is trailing in the race. The handling of the pandemic has become a point of contention, with Truss declaring this month that she would never approve another lockdown and claiming that, as trade minister at the time, she was not involved in key decisions about how to respond.
Sunak claimed that the government was “wrong to scare people” about the coronavirus.
Officials in Johnson’s office, he said, barred him from discussing the “trade-offs” of imposing coronavirus-related restrictions, such as the impact on missed doctor’s appointments and lengthening waiting lists for health care in the state-run National Health Service.
“The script was not to ever acknowledge them,” he told the Spectator magazine. “The script was: ‘oh there’s no trade-off because doing this for our health is good for the economy.”
Sunak claimed that ministers gave scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which assisted in responding to the outbreak, undue influence over decisions such as closing schools and nurseries.
Sunak stated that when scientists presented him with scenarios about what would happen if lockdowns were not imposed or extended at the start of the pandemic, his requests for the underlying modelling were ignored.
Sunak believes that blaming civil servants is unjust because ministers are elected to make decisions.
“If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed,” he said.
Sunak was widely popular at the start of the pandemic because, as finance minister at the time, he implemented a furlough scheme that kept many people on the payroll even when lockdowns prevented them from working.