Rishi Sunak: lockdown-obsessed UK scientists had too much power to drive Covid response

Prime ministerial candidate regrets how 'the government scared people' during coronavirus pandemic

Conservative leadership candidate Rishi Sunak visits his family's former business, Bassett Pharmacy in Southampton, as part of his campaign. Reuters
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Rishi Sunak, one of the candidates vying to be Britain's next prime minister, has described how he was left “furious” at meetings over a refusal to acknowledge the wider effect of lockdowns and how scientists manipulated their findings to drive the Covid-19 response.

Mr Sunak said of the government “we shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did” and suggested the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) edited its minutes to hide dissenting opinions.

The former UK chancellor said the government was "wrong to scare people" about the virus. He said he was banned from discussing the "trade-offs" of imposing coronavirus-related restrictions, such as the effect on missed doctor's appointments and lengthening waiting lists for treatment by 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'."

Asked why opinion polls showed that the public was eager for the country to be locked down, he said: "We helped shape that: with the fear messaging."

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 Mr Sunak or Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak visits the surgery in Southampton where his father was a GP. Getty Images

Britain under Mr 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 representative defended its record on Covid-19, saying the economy and children's education were central to the difficult decisions made.

Mr Sunak, who resigned from the government last month, suggested schools could have stayed open. He said that at one meeting he tried to voice his opposition to closing schools and 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."

Updated: August 25, 2022, 9:17 AM