Former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Conservative leadership contender Rishi Sunak visits his family’s old business, Bassett Pharmacy as part of his campaign to be leader of the Conservative Party and the next prime minister on August 24, 2022 in Southampton, England. Rishi’s mother Usha Sunak owned Sunak Pharmacy at this location between 1995 and 2014. He has said he once worked alongside his mother in the business keeping the books. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau-Pool/Getty Images)
Conservative leadership aspirant Rishi Sunak has slammed the “wrong” policies of the government during its pandemic response, including too much authority given to scientists.
The former chancellor, a known critic of economically painful lockdowns, claimed he had been in favour of keeping schools open but his “emotional” argument was met with silence when decisions were made.
Sunak, who was part of the government when the pandemic raged in the UK and the rest of the world, told the Spectator that he did not approve of campaign posters showing Covid patients on ventilators as it was wrong to “scare people” about the coronavirus.
“We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did,” he said and attributed the public eagerness for lockdowns to “fear messaging”.
He is in a race with foreign secretary Liz Truss to succeed Boris Johnson as the Conservative party leader and prime minister. But he trailing his rival in opinion polls by big margins even as the Tory members are casting their ballots to choose the next leader.
Sunak said there should have been deeper discussions on the “trade-offs” of restrictions, including NHS backlogs and the impact on the education of children.
“The script was not to ever acknowledge them. The script was: oh, there’s no trade-off because doing this for our health is good for the economy,” he said in an interview with the Spectator.
“Those meetings were literally me around that table, just fighting,” the Indian-origin politician said, adding, “it was incredibly uncomfortable every single time”.
“I was like, ‘forget about the economy – surely we can all agree that kids not being in school is a major nightmare.’ There was a big silence afterwards. It was the first time someone had said it. I was so furious,” he told the magazine.
During his stint as the chancellor of the exchequer between February 2020 and July 2022, Sunak won praise for his furlough scheme to help businesses affected by the pandemic. But his decision to raise National Insurance has drawn flak.
A government spokesperson said public health, education, and the economy were central to the difficult decisions during the pandemic.
Ministers made collective decisions to protect public health, taking into account a wide range of expert advice, the spokesperson said.