Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there was no “conclusive” evidence that the government’s Eat Out to Help Out (EOTHO) initiative to encourage the public back into restaurants and bars following the first coronavirus lockdown in 2020 helped spread the virus again, as he fiercely defended his leadership during the Covid pandemic.
The scheme subsidized dining out, providing 50% off the cost of food and/or non-alcoholic drinks, and was spearheaded by Rishi Sunak, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, however, Mr Johnson told the UK’s Covid-19 inquiry this week that he hadn’t been warned that it risked accelerating the spread of the virus and hadn’t considered it a “gamble.”
More than 49,000 businesses claimed £849m through the scheme, with over 160 million meals discounted.
EOTHO has been heavily examined by the inquiry, with questions about whether scientists were consulted about the plan and whether it contributed to the spread of infection. Leading Government scientists, as well as former health secretary Matt Hancock, have stated they were not told in advance about the scheme.
Mr Johnson told Lady Hallett’s inquiry: “I don’t think that I thought that scheme in itself was a particular gamble at the time, and it certainly wasn’t presented to me as such”, adding that he cannot see anything that “conclusively shows” the scheme had an impact on the reproductive rate of the virus.
“At the time that the Eat Out to Help Out policy was being aired with me for the first time, it was not presented to me as an acceleration, simply something to make sense of the freedoms that we were already giving.
“I must emphasise, it was not at the time presented to me as something that would add to the budget of risk,” he said.
Questioned by Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry counsel, the former Prime Minister said he thought that Whitty and Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, “must” have know about the scheme.
“I’m fairly confident that it was discussed several times in meetings in which I believe they must have been present,” Johnson said. “I don’t understand how something so well publicised as that could have been smuggled past the scientific advice, I don’t see how that could have happened.”
When Keith pointed out that even in his witness statement to the inquiry, Mr Johnson said he assumed the scheme had been discussed with scientific advisors the former prime minister replied: “I said that in my statement because I frankly assumed that it must have been discussed with them. And I’m perplexed as to how something as significant as that could have got through.”
Sir Chris has told the inquiry that he and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s former chief scientific adviser, were never told about the plan.
The former deputy chief medical officer Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam also said he first heard about Eat Out to Help Out on television, while chief scientific officer Dame Angela McLean has claimed she was also not consulted.
In evidence submitted to the inquiry, Mr Sunak said he “(did) not recall any concerns about the scheme”.
Mr Johnson said he “thought that Chris and Patrick must have known” and repeatedly said he did not understand how the plan could have been “smuggled past” the scientists.
The former prime minister on Wednesday admitted he should have “twigged much sooner” about the threat posed by Covid-19 in the early days of the pandemic, but he also sought to defend his administration from claims of toxicity and dysfunction.
In a full day of evidence that focused on the early stages of the pandemic and the decision to introduce the first lockdown, Mr Johnson also defended the under-fire former health secretary Matt Hancock.
His final day of evidence is expected to focus on the later stages of the pandemic and the decision to apply a second lockdown.