How Rishi Sunak Caused the Second Wave

A new book shows the person most responsible for the second spike in infections, but it’s not the one you might think.

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak leaves Downing Street, in London, Britain, November 25, 2020. REUTERS/Simon Dawson/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak leaves Downing Street, in London, Britain, November 25, 2020. REUTERS/Simon Dawson/File Photo
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WESTMINSTER (Labour Buzz) - Donald Trump called it the Fifth Avenue effect, the idea that he could shoot someone dead on Fifth Avenue and people would still vote for him. Throughout all the ups and downs of this pandemic, one politician has been immune to the ups and downs of fortunes. Ironically as a new book shows, he’s probably done more than anyone else to hamper our efforts against the pandemic. He is, of course, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak. 

Throughout this pandemic, Sunak’s popularity has been constant. He is, according to Kieran Pedley in the Times, the most popular chancellor since Healey. As he prepared for his budget the BBC ran a gushing profile the like of which you’d normally expect to see in a celebrity magazine. 

Such numbers are remarkable at any time. However, given that they come against a backdrop of the worst downturn in UK history and the biggest recession of any major power, they are insane. 

They make even less sense when you factor in a new book that suggests he, more than anyone else, helped shape policy decisions which forced us into a second lockdown and led to as many as 20,000 more deaths than necessary. 

Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott’s new book Failures of State is being serialised in the Times. The latest extract paints a vivid picture of how Boris Johnson ignored the warnings of scientists in favour of a destructive policy obsessed with short term economic goals. The result was devastating to both the fight against COVID 19 and the economy. 

But while the decisions were taken by Johnson, it was Sunak providing in the impetus. Their extract paints a damning picture of a Prime Minister who was ‘winging it’ from one moment to the next, and a Chancellor with a cavalier disregard for human life. 

By July, the Government’s advisors were warning that they had no confidence the R rate could be stabilised below one. Christ Witty said: “We have probably reached near the limits, or the limits, of what we can do in terms of opening up society.”

However, at that time, the government was about to embark on the Chancellor’s ‘Eat out to Help Out’ scheme. Nothing, not scientists, pandemics or even common sense was going to get in their way. 

By mid-August, the number of positive tests had hit a thousand per day. The Commons All-Party Group wrote to Johnson urging ‘an urgent change in government approach’.

Johnson didn’t get it. He was on holiday in the Hebrides walking on Skye, while the virus rampaged out of control. He resisted all calls to return home until a journalist uncovered his whereabouts. Even then, he never replied to the letter. 

To the dismay of scientists, the government kept course, a decision which one Sage source describes as ‘insane.' 

Several studies have pointed to the consequences of Eat Out to Help Out, most notably, Oxford University, which found it increased COVID 19 cases by 8 to 17 percent. 

However, the scheme’s impact was even more insidious. As the Sage source says “It wasn’t about support for restaurants, otherwise it would have counted for takeaways,” a Sage source said. “It was to break our fear and it worked.”

That in itself was catastrophic. People stopped being afraid of the virus. They stopped staying home and they stopped taking the same precautions. 

Government decisions were being based on wishful thinking and in which those in power repeatedly ignored expert advice in favour of what they hoped might happen. 

It was around this time that a common theme developed in Prime Ministers Questions, in which Starmer would uncover Sage advice which had been ignored, he would ask the Prime Minister to follow it. Johnson would scoff at the idea before following suit two weeks later. 

Every move was made at the last minute as it became too late to do anything else. 

Behind all this was Sunak. The book shows how, by September, Sage was calling for a two-week circuit break lockdown. Without it, Witty and Vallance warned we could be seeing between 200 and 500 deaths a day by the middle of November. 

The proposal seemed to be winning the day and was put before Cabinet. Matt Hancock and Michael Gove were said to be keen, but Rishi Sunak held out. He met with Johnson expressing concern about what the pandemic might do to the economy and jobs.

He invited experts to a meeting with the Prime Minister. Three of those who dialled into the Zoom call were among those who had been the most vocal supporters of the herd immunity strategy. They succeeded in persuading Johnson to stop preparations for a circuit breaker. 

In response Witty and Vallance to the unusual step of organising their own press conference without politicians in attendance. It was here that Vallance issued his warning of 200 deaths per day by the middle of November if the UK carried on its current course. 

At the time he was mocked and vilified in the right-wing press. As it turned out he was wildly downplaying reality. Figures were closer to the 500 a day given to Johnson and would soon be on their way to more than a thousand. 

“I thought the chancellor was in charge. He was the main person who was responsible for the second wave,” a Sage advisor is quoted as saying. 

Throughout all this Sunak’s popularity has remained solid. However, things may be beginning to take a downturn. Polling from YouGov shows his popularity has steadily declined over the course of 2020. His favourites still outweigh the negatives, but the gap is closing and fewer than 50% now believe he is doing a good job. 

Books like this reinforce the notion that his popularity is ill-deserved. The Fifth Avenue factor has got him this far, but that might be as good as it gets for the Teflon Chancellor. 

However, as this book shows, he bears more responsibility, possibly than anyone for the mess we find ourselves in. 

(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)

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