Fact Check: “Rishi Sunak Was the Main Person Responsible for Covid’s Second Wave”

The Times has published the latest instalment in Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott’s new book Failures of State, an exercise, it seems, in recording the Official Narrative.

In the excerpt the authors lay the blame for the second wave at the feet of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, quoting a SAGE source that he was “the main person who was responsible for the second wave”. The editors picked this incendiary quote as the title of the piece.

Calvert and Arbuthnott write:

The Government had been warned about the consequences of a second wave but, by the end of July, the scientists on SAGE were reporting that they had no confidence that R was not now above the one threshold. The Government’s limited room for manoeuvre was acknowledged by Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, at a hastily arranged press conference. “We have probably reached near the limits, or the limits, of what we can do in terms of opening up society,” he said.

The following Monday, August 3rd, was going to be the start of Eat Out to Help Out, come what may. According to a Conservative MP source, both Matt Hancock and Michael Gove were concerned about pressing ahead, but “the voices that were prevailing in government, for whatever reason, were those that were pushing a case that was based purely on economic recovery at all costs as fast as possible”.

By mid-August, positive tests had risen to more than a thousand a day. The Commons all-party coronavirus group wrote directly to the Prime Minister. “It is already clear that to minimise the risk of a second wave occurring . . . an urgent change in government approach is required,” said the letter.

One researcher claimed the scheme boosted Covid infections by 8-17%.

The Eat Out to Help Out initiative was hailed as a triumph for Chancellor Rishi Sunak, but it was too effective, according to researchers from Warwick University, who found that it had increased COVID-19 cases by between 8% and 17%. The report’s author, Professor Thiemo Fetzer, wasn’t alone in concluding that the scheme was a mistake. “It wasn’t about support for restaurants, otherwise it would have counted for takeaways,” a SAGE source said. “It was to break our fear and it worked.” He added: “We were obviously going to have to reverse that. It just seemed insane.”

Ross Clark in the Spectator questioned the idea that Eat Out to Help Out was responsible for a resurgence in the virus last October when the theory was first aired, noting that areas of Scotland where hospitality was severely restricted were also seeing infections rise.

If eating out really is so hazardous, why have infections continued to rise in Tier 3 areas and in Scotland’s central belt where pubs and restaurants have had their business severely curtailed? It is all very nice to have data, but to blame Eat Out to Help Out for between 8% and 17% of clusters (in a month when transmission was very low in any case) seems just a little too neat. All we can say for sure is that the scheme has been responsible for an extra £500 million of public debt – and that any benefits it brought the hospitality industry have since been undermined by further restrictions.

At the end of January Ross’s scepticism was confirmed by Treasury analysis, which found a mismatch between where the scheme was popular and where cases were rising fastest.

More than 160 million punters were given 50% off meals to try to get people back into struggling pubs and restaurants, with the scheme credited for getting 400,000 workers off furlough.

Now data published by the Treasury shows areas with the high take up of the scheme also still had the low virus levels between August and October.

The figures show places such as Westminster and Scarborough and North Devon had very high take-up of Eat Out to Help Out, but very low subsequent Covid cases.

Meanwhile Knowsley, Rochdale, Merthyr Tydfil had far higher Covid rates, but lower levels of use of the scheme.

The Treasury said: “These figures confirm that take-up of Eat Out to Help Out does not correlate with incidence of Covid regionally – and indeed where it does the relationship is negative.”

LS Fact Check Verdict: False.

There is no observable relationship between areas which embraced Eat Out to Help Out and areas which had larger autumn and winter surges. Internationally, US states like Florida which did not re-impose restrictions over the winter did not fare worse than the UK. There is therefore no sound basis for alleging that “Rishi Sunak was the main person responsible for Covid’s second wave”.

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