For some time, I’ve been trying to persuade Rishi Sunak to go on the record about what really happened in lockdown. Only a handful of people really know what took place then, because most ministers – including members of the Cabinet – were kept in the dark.
Government was often reduced to a “quad” of ministers deciding on Britain’s future and the then chancellor of the exchequer was one of them.
I’d heard rumours that Sunak was horrified at much of what he saw, but was keeping quiet. In which case, lessons would never be learnt.
His speaking out now confirms much of what many suspected. That the culture of fear, seen in the Orwellian advertising campaign that sought to terrify the country, applied inside Government.
Questioning lockdown, even in ministerial meetings, was seen as an attack on the Prime Minister’s authority. To ask even basic questions – about how many extra cancer deaths there might be, for example – was to risk being portrayed as one the crackpots, the “Cov-idiots”, people who wanted to “let the virus rip”.
Hysteria had taken hold in the heart of Whitehall. Lockdown, Sunak says, was always a political decision but No 10 wanted to dress it up as “following the science”.
Sunak now stands almost no chance: the race is nearly over with most votes cast. Polls show Liz Truss ahead on a two-to-one ratio. Nor is it about score-settling: Sunak spoke to me on the condition that this was not about naming “the guilty men”.
He agreed to speak about the process (or lack thereof) because he thinks that candour will help correct mistakes for next time. Importantly, I suspect Sunak will be the first of many to speak out. As one Cabinet minister told me yesterday: “It wasn’t just Rishi. I needed my own network of spies to find out what was happening in lockdown, because we were never told.”
If this is what was going on, if there was no proper Cabinet scrutiny, if it’s true that no overall cost-benefit analysis of lockdown was ever seriously attempted, it points to a collapse in basic standards of government.
What did the scientists advise about the now-infamous March 2020 Cheltenham races: were ministers told to cancel? Or did scientists say: Covid schmovid, go ahead? This matters because this point shows how “the science” was, in fact, no such thing.
Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance began by advising ministers not to lock down, saying public events were fine, and that face masks were pointless. They were talking about herd immunity as the way out.
Then they flipped entirely.
But this reveals something crucial: lockdown never was backed by science. It was about models and suppositions, educated guesswork. It was driven by moods, emotion, fear – and, worst of all, politics masquerading as science.
This is part of Sunak’s point. He doesn’t say locking down was wrong. Just that it somehow went from being a daft idea, rubbished by scientists, to a national imperative whose necessity was unquestionable scientific truth.
So we need to ask: Why was Sunak made to feel, as he told me, that he was being seen – even inside government – as a callous money-grabber when he raised even basic concerns?
The disclosures should start a great unravelling of the lockdown myth, its pseudo-scientific sheen stripped away and the shocking political malfeasance left to stand exposed. This isn’t just about a virus. An autocratic streak took hold of the Government and overpowered a weak Prime Minister – and did so because our democratic safeguards failed.
It should have been impossible for policies of such huge consequence to be passed without the most rigorous scrutiny. So many lives were at risk that every single lockdown assumption should have been pulled apart to see if it was correct. It should have been impossible for government to suspend such scrutiny for more than a few weeks.
I suspect that this authoritarian reflex lies embedded in our system, ready to twitch again. Life, after all, is easier without opposition so if tools exist to suspend it, we can expect them to be grabbed. If a flu virus comes over from Australia, or a new Covid variant emerges, there will be calls to close the country down. But in the next crisis, we need to protect transparency, debate, Cabinet government and red-team (ie, oppositional) analysis of whatever science is presented to the government.
Sunak doesn’t speak like a man expecting to end up in No 10. He said earlier this week that he would rather lose having been honest with people than win by telling half-truths. Opening up on lockdown may not save, or even help, his campaign. But his candour has offered important insights into one of the most important stories of our times – and one that is only beginning to be told.