Rishi Sunak has finally managed to grab the agenda during the leadership race, and finally not for a u-turn or a strategic cock up. Interviewed in The Spectator Sunak argues SAGE made bad predictions based on botched modelling and No. 10 never allowed a debate to be had on the cost-benefit of lockdown measures – particularly on closing schools. A culture of fear was decided on by the top of government and their scientific advisors, which was then set in stone. “Dissenting voices were filtered out and a see-no-evil policy was applied.”
While lockdown was known to be “by necessity, a gamble”, Rishi, echoing Steve Baker, says cost-benefit analyses were never made:
“I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off,’ says Sunak. ‘The script 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.”
The main problem, he appears to diagnose, was in elevating SAGE to “a committee that had the power to decide whether the country would lock down or not.” The problem was even more concentrated than the entire SAGE committee, however. Rishi observes that, whoever wrote their meetings’ minutes – deciding what discussions and facts to include – was essentially setting the nation’s entire public health policy.
“For a year, UK government policy – and the fate of millions –was being decided by half-explained graphs cooked up by outside academics.”
Rishi concludes “This is the problem… If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed… We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did.” He concludes had we not done so, and had we acknowledged trade-offs from the beginning “we could be in a very different place… it could have been shorter. Different. Quicker.”
He doesn’t name names when accusing fellow cabinet colleagues of not speaking out, which is probably why those in the know aren’t calling him out for rose-tinted hindsight. Guido asked a source close to discussions happening around the first lockdown, who said the above is indeed what Sunak was saying internally at the time. The source also agreed with the problem of giving unelected officials so much power in deciding what ministers saw and what options they were given:
“There were often times the officials would do a “pre-meeting”, decide what they wanted to push through, then ram it through in the main meeting with the PM/ministers”
This process wasn’t helped when, on occasion, ministers would go into the key Covid meeting and be handed a set of 100 papers by officials, with no chance of being able to ingest them before a decision was taken. Guido can barely wait for tonight’s Julia Hartley-Brewer-hosted husting in East Anglia…
Read the full account on the Spectator here.