LONDON (Reuters) – Former finance minister Rishi Sunak, one of two candidates vying to be Britain’s next prime minister, said it was a mistake to have “empowered” scientists during the coronavirus pandemic and that the downsides of lockdowns were suppressed.
The ruling Conservative Party is choosing a new leader after Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to quit when dozens of ministers resigned in protest at a series of scandals and missteps. Party members are voting to select either Sunak or Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
Sunak said the government was “wrong to scare people” about coronavirus. He said he was banned from discussing the “trade-offs” of imposing coronavirus-related restrictions, such as the impact on missed doctor’s appointments and lengthening health waiting lists in the state-run National Health Service.
“The script was not to ever acknowledge them,” he told the Spectator magazine. “The script was: ‘oh there’s no trade-off, because doing this for our health is good for the economy’.”
Sunak said it was a mistake to allow the about 50 scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the group which helped the government respond to the outbreak, to have so much influence on decision making such as closing schools.
He said: “We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did.”
Asked why opinion polls showed that the public was eager for the country to be in a lockdown, Sunak said: “We helped shape that: with the fear messaging”.
Britain under Johnson was slower than most of its European peers to lock down in early 2020. After suffering some of the highest death rates at the start of the pandemic, it later became one of the first major economies to reopen.
A government spokesperson defended its record on COVID, saying the economy and children’s education were central to the difficult decisions made during the pandemic.
Sunak, who resigned from Johnson’s government last month, suggested schools could have stayed open during the pandemic. He said during one meeting he tried to voice his opposition to closing schools, saying he got “very emotional about it”.
“There was a big silence afterwards,” he said. “It was the first time someone had said it. I was so furious.”
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Kate Holton)