Few high-ranking officials closely involved in the decision-making process that led to lockdowns have come clean on what really happened or how it came to pass that this giant social experiment was conceived and implemented. Former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is bucking that trend.
He has just given a fascinating interview with Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator (published on 27 August 2022) in which he offers a useful insider’s perspective on how the British government conducted itself during the pandemic, and especially on how it hurtled down the dark tunnel of protracted lockdowns.
Rishi Sunak, competing for Mr Boris Johnson’s job at the time of his interview, served in the cabinet of the Prime Minister as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 13 February 2020 to 5 July 2022, while the UK weathered a pandemic and the effects of a war in the Ukraine.
He resigned his post as Chancellor of the Exchequer on 5 July 2022, citing differences between himself and the Prime Minister on economic policy. Freed from the duties of that office, he has decided to come clean on his reservations about Boris Johnson’s pandemic policies.
The silence of public figures on what really went on in the corridors of power during a public crisis is understandable up to a point. Why, after all, would you open up a can of worms, that could potentially damage your own career? Wouldn’t it be easier to lie low and wait things out, so that potential damages to your career are kept to a minimum?
Understandable, perhaps. But hardly excusable. The involuntary confinement of millions of citizens to their homes, the involuntary closure of businesses, schools, and universities, the suspension of civil rights and democratic procedures, and the policing of citizens’ visits to the park, are sufficiently dramatic and unorthodox policy interventions, with sufficiently far-reaching harmful consequences, that citizens deserve to know how exactly such decisions were arrived at, and how their collateral harms were taken into consideration, if indeed they were.
Therefore, it is certainly refreshing to hear a high-ranking UK public official — a member of cabinet, no less — take the stand, in a manner of speaking, to make a detailed public statement about the inner workings of lockdown policies, as he saw them from his perspective.
It is even more refreshing when such testimony comes from someone who is not just intent on reiterating the tired narrative that “lockdowns saved lives,” or in rationalising government policies, but in describing the ugly under-belly of what really went on behind the scenes, including details that the general public was largely unaware of at the time.
The fact that this former Chancellor of the Exchequer happens to be currently competing for the office of his former boss adds an important political wrinkle to his testimony, because he may have good political reasons to distance himself from lockdown policies whose disastrous consequences, from expanded healthcare waiting lists to deferred education and economic depression, will become more and more evident with every passing month.
Nonetheless, much of Mr Sunak’s testimony about lockdown policymaking is at least plausible and consistent with what is publicly known about how the UK government responded to the threat of the pandemic. It is also not an analysis that is entirely free from political risk. After all, even if Mr Sunak did eventually urge the Prime Minister to reconsider lockdown policies, he remained at the Prime Minister’s side through the worst of the lockdowns, and should therefore not expect to be exempt from the charge of complicity.
Let’s assume Mr Sunak is seeking to contain potential damages to his own reputation from the fall-out of lockdowns, by cultivating the role of lockdown dissenter. That need not invalidate his testimony, since many aspects of what he says can be corroborated by other actors and public reports, and he was part of the cabinet that eventually stood up to the SAGE scientists, and supported Johnson’s politically risky choice to keep society open in Christmas 2021.
Whatever its political motivation, we can learn a lot from Rishi Sunak’s insider’s reflections on the UK government’s handling of the pandemic. Although he does not come out directly to say that lockdowns were wrong from the start, he does express serious misgivings about the manner in which lockdowns were introduced, and the government’s conspicuous failure to consider their potential harms. Rather than paraphrasing his testimony, I prefer to directly quote it, so that readers can judge it for themselves:
- “I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-offs (of lockdowns)… The script (handed to government ministers by No. 10) was not to ever acknowledge them. The script was: oh, there’s no trade-off, because doing this for our health is good for the economy.”
- “I felt like no one talked (frankly)… We didn’t talk at all about missed (doctor’s) appointments, or the backlog building in the NHS in a massive way. That was never part of it.”
- “I was very emotional about (education). I was like: ‘Forget about the economy. Surely we can all agree that kids not being in school is a major nightmare’ or something like that. There was a big silence afterwards. It was the first time someone had said it.”
- “In every (Treasury) brief, we tried to say, let’s stop the ‘fear’ narrative. It was always wrong from the beginning. I constantly said it was wrong… It was wrong to scare people (with posters showing Covid patients on ventilators).”
- “The SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) people didn’t realise for a very long time that there was a Treasury person on all their calls. A lovely lady. She was great because it meant that she was sitting there, listening to their discussions… (she would tell me) ‘Well, actually, it turns out that lots of people disagreed about that conclusion,” or ‘Here are the reasons they were not sure about it.’
- “I was like: ‘Summarise for me the key assumptions, on one page (driving SAGE analysis), with a bunch of sensitivities and rationale for each one… In the first year I could never get this.”
- “All this blaming civil servants — I hate it. We are elected to run the country, not to blame someone else… The leader matters. It matters who the person at the top is.”
- “(Lessons from the lockdown:) We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did. And you have to acknowledge trade-offs from the beginning. If we’d done all of that, we could be in a very different place.”
- “We helped shape (pro-lockdown sentiment): with the fear messaging, empowering the scientists and not talking about the trade-offs.”
- “(If I had been in charge of pandemic policy) I would just have had a more grown-up conversation with the country.”
Many critics of lockdown policy, including yours truly, have already made many of these points repeatedly — the danger of giving excessive power to an independent class of scientific advisors; the need for a broad and careful consideration of the costs and benefits of high-impact public policies; the fact that citizens deserve to be treated as adults, not children; the harms of fear-mongering and similar forms of emotional manipulation; and the vital need to create an atmosphere that permits dissenters to be respectfully heard out.
So what Rishi Sunak said in this interview is not an especially original take on the pandemic. But it is nice to finally hear these points corroborated and echoed by someone so high up on the ladder of government and so intimately involved in the creation of pandemic policy.