Eat Out to Help Out ‘blindsided’ top officials, Covid inquiry is told

Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme has faced criticism at the Covid inquiry (PA)
Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme has faced criticism at the Covid inquiry (PA)

Officials working on the Cabinet Office Covid taskforce were “blindsided” by Rishi Sunak’s Eat out to Help Out scheme, the official inquiry has been told.

Simon Ridley, who became the latest top official to appear before Lady Hallett’s probe this week, faced detailed questions about the body’s role in key decisions over the course of 2020 as Boris Johnson’s ministers grappled with the pandemic.

The former head of the Cabinet Office Covid-19 taskforce admitted there was some surprise when the then-chancellor’s plan to encourage people to get back out to restaurants in summer 2020 was first presented.

The inquiry has already heard criticism of the policy from, among others, Sir Chris Whitty, who privately referred to it as “eat out to help out the virus”.

Mr Ridley, who gave evidence on Tuesday morning, was asked by lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC if he was “extraordinarily concerned” that such a major policy was not brought before the taskforce.

“Things happen that surprise. We were focussed on the advice we could give in the context of the steps of the May 2020 document.

“This was announced as government policy. I didn’t spend time worrying particularly about the whys and wherefores of that,” he said.

Put to him by Mr Keith that this was because he was “blindsided by the Treasury and there was nothing you could do”, he said: “Correct.”

New details emerged during Tuesday’s hearing about the taskforce’s preparations for winter, amid concerns about a resurgence of the virus.

Lady Hallett’s probe was told Mr Johnson sought out “alternative views” from Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford, and others as ministers sought to avoid a second nationwide lockdown.

In September, Mr Johnson was shown a document – headed “hypothetical thought-experiment not Government policy” – by Mr Ridley and other officials that set out a scenario several weeks in the future – October 14 2020 – where he was being advised to take “urgent action” to “bend the curve” of Covid infection levels.

Mr Keith asked: “Why was it necessary to put that in front of the prime minister and, bluntly, scare him or hypothesise as to what terrible dilemmas he might have to face in the future if he didn’t take a decision in September, the way that the Covid taskforce believed he ought?”

Mr Ridley said: “We were trying to find different ways to have the debate with the prime minister and others about the uncertainties about the possible positions we could be in, in order to inform decisions about action today.

“We found at different points in July, August and September (2020) that doing meetings in some slightly different ways, providing information in different ways, helped to stimulate that debate.”

Earlier, the official also acknowledged there was a “profusion of officialdom” during the early period of the Government’s pandemic response.

Mr Ridley said there were “too many meetings” inside the Cabinet Office during March and April 2020.

“I think that is true inside the Cabinet Office. I think it was also confusing for colleagues in other departments,” he told the hearing.

Lord Edward Udny-Lister, a former chief of staff to Mr Johnson, appears on Tuesday afternoon.