Then-chancellor Rishi Sunak places an Eat Out to Help Out sticker in the window of a business when launching the scheme
Simon Ridley, a senior civil servant, was the head of the Covid Taskforce from May 2020 to May 2022.
He told the Covid Inquiry on Tuesday that he and his colleagues were not aware of Sunak’s programme before it came out.
The scheme encouraged people to eat at discounted prices in restaurants and cafes in the summer of 2020, at a time when Covid infections were still very high.
Ridley told the inquiry that the controversial £500 million scheme – which has been credited with boosting Covid infections between 8 and 17% that August and September – that the idea did not come from him or his team.
According to Ridley, the taskforce were unaware of it beforehand, as it was a decision the prime minister, then Boris Johnson, and Sunak announced in on July 15.
This was also reportedly 10 days after the cabinet office said their “big worry” was about lifting lockdown too quickly on July 6.
Less than 10 days later, on July 15, Sunak’s scheme was announced.
The inquiry’s counsel, Hugo Keith KC, asked Ridley: “You must have been extraordinarily concerned that a major plank of the government’s strategy, a positive scheme to financially support people to eat out across those midweek days in August, had not been brought to you for your views.”
Ridley hesitated before he replied: “Things happen that...surprise. I mean, we were focused 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.”
Keith pushed: “Because you were effectively completely blindsided by the Treasury and there was nothing you could do?”
Ridley replied: “Correct.”
Simon Ridley, the head of the Covid taskforce, on not knowing about Eat Out to Help Out pic.twitter.com/rncNJVAHK0
— Tamara Cohen (@tamcohen) November 7, 2023
The public probe has piled substantial pressure onto the current prime minister over his decision to launch the scheme more than three years ago, because it meant people were mixing before vaccines were widely available.
The inquiry previously heard how the government’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, described it as “eat out to help out the virus”.
The current chief scientific adviser, who was then a senior government scientist, Professor Dame Angela McLean called Sunak “Dr Death the chancellor”, appearing to reference Eat Out To Help Out.
An earlier session of the inquiry heard how top scientific advisers, Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty, thought the 50% discount eating-out scheme risked accelerated Covid infections.
A notebook from Vallance, who was the government’s chief scientific adviser until April this year, has also revealed that Ridley criticised the chancellor at the end of October, too.
The taskforce head told Vallance he believe PM Boris Johnson “owns the reality for a day and then is buffeted by a discussion with Cx [chancellor]”.
Vallance’s diary also revealed Johnson previously called the Treasury the “pro-death squad” back in January 2021.
Ridley laid into the government’s care home strategy while giving evidence to the Inquiry, claiming there was no policy in March 2020 to protect care homes.
The Covid taskforce chair took the chance to slam the staggered tier-system the government announced for late 2020, too, claiming the strictest level – Tier 3 – was the only one that worked.
“It’s certainly the case that if we’d acted more strongly earlier, we’d have stood a fairer chance of avoiding a national lockdown,” Ridley claimed.