UK

Treasury had no estimated cost of lockdown, says former chief economic adviser

Clare Lombardelli denied the Treasury had been ‘tactical’ or selective in the way it shared its analysis during the pandemic (Ben Birchall/PA)
Clare Lombardelli denied the Treasury had been ‘tactical’ or selective in the way it shared its analysis during the pandemic (Ben Birchall/PA) Clare Lombardelli denied the Treasury had been ‘tactical’ or selective in the way it shared its analysis during the pandemic (Ben Birchall/PA)

The Treasury had “no estimated cost of a lockdown”, the Government’s former chief economic adviser has told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Clare Lombardelli suggested there was no way to determine the economic impact of national restrictions going into the pandemic, but insisted some “useful” modelling was carried out.

Giving evidence to the public inquiry on Monday, she denied the Treasury had been “tactical” or selective in the way it shared its analysis during the pandemic, saying its focus was on providing information to ministers in a “pressurised time”.

“I wouldn’t say there was no meaningful modelling, there was a lot of analysis and modelling that happened. What I would say is there was no estimated cost of a lockdown, if you like,” Ms Lombardelli said.

“There was no way to basically say a lockdown will cost you X, or indeed a lockdown of this form will cost you X but of a different form will cost you Y.”

Questioned by counsel to the inquiry Joanne Cecil on whether analysis was only shared in advance of a policy proposal the Treasury sought to advance, she said: “We shared our economic analysis and evidence very, very freely with everyone to ensure it was feeding into the decisions as it needed to.”

But she acknowledged that data could “potentially” have been shared more widely to improve the quality of analysis.

In an email chain shown to the inquiry, Dame Angela McLean, who was the deputy chief scientific adviser at the time, expressed concerns over the Treasury’s use of simple modelling.

The email read: “I have emailed Chris (Whitty) and Patrick (Vallance) saying HMT (Her Majesty’s Treasury) changed the model after I QA’d (quality assured) it and I don’t know how.

“Anything HMT says about infectious disease modelling therefore has no endorsement from me – they are on their own.

“Given their inability to spot egregious errors in other things they were sent I do not have confidence in their ability to hack a simple, sensible model.”

Ms Lombardelli, who advised Prime Minister Rishi Sunak when he was chancellor, was also asked about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, through which discounts were offered to encourage people to get back out to restaurants in summer 2020.

Ben Wallace visits visits Salisbury Plain
Ben Wallace visits visits Salisbury Plain Dame Angela McLean expressed concerns over the Treasury’s use of simple modelling (Ben Birchall/PA)

The former Government adviser, now chief economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said she did not know whether any scientist had been consulted about the policy before it was implemented.

“I was involved in the sort of economic evidence that fed into this identification of the challenge… I don’t know the details of the clearance process,” she said.

Asked whether the risk of potentially increasing infections was considered in the rollout, Ms Lombardelli replied: “I don’t know. The policy was conceived in the context that it was safe to lift restrictions and activity could return.”

However, Stuart Glassborrow, former deputy principal private secretary to Boris Johnson, said staff inside No 10 were aware there was no scientific advice on the scheme’s effect on the virus before it was implemented.

Giving evidence after Ms Lombardelli, Mr Glassborrow, a career civil servant, said he and others in Downing Steet knew “there hadn’t been direct CMO, CSA, Sage analysis on this policy.”

The inquiry will later hear from Ben Warner, a former No 10 special adviser.