The highly anticipated appearances of Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson, and Dominic Cummings before the Covid-19 inquiry have been postponed until November. This decision was made to prevent any clashes with the political conference season.
The inquiries will shed light on the tensions and disagreements within the government regarding the handling of the pandemic, including the severity and timing of lockdowns, the rushed contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE), school closures, and policies such as Sunak’s ‘eat out to help out’ scheme.
In addition to examining the government’s response to the pandemic, the inquiry aims to understand the culture that was allowed to develop in Downing Street and Whitehall during that time, which ultimately led to the Partygate scandal.
The second part of the inquiry, focused on ‘core UK decision making and political governance,’ was initially expected to summon key political leaders in early October. However, due to the anticipated interest and potential political fallout, it was decided to delay their appearances by several weeks.
The current and former prime ministers, Sunak and Johnson, as well as Johnson’s former adviser Cummings and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, will now be called to give evidence in November, possibly around the time of the king’s speech on 7 November or the autumn financial statement on 22 November. This timing also aligns with Tory strategists’ hopes of relaunching the Sunak premiership in the run-up to a general election.
Each of the main participants has received long lists of written questions to answer before their appearances in the witness box. The inquiry has also demanded access to additional information, including emails and WhatsApp messages, to gain a comprehensive understanding of the government’s actions at the time.
One of the 150 questions sent to Johnson by the inquiry, which is chaired by former high court judge Heather Hallett, is expected to be a focal point of verbal questioning. It asks why he did not attend any Cobra meetings related to Covid-19 before 2 March 2020, despite the seriousness of the emergency. By that time, Johnson had failed to attend a single meeting of the special emergency committee.
Another question, potentially problematic for Sunak, addresses his discussions with the former chancellor about the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme before its implementation in August 2020.
The scheme, which aimed to incentivize people to dine out again, cost £850m and was subsequently linked to a surge in Covid cases that autumn. Notably, no epidemiologist was consulted prior to the scheme’s implementation.
It is clear that the delayed appearances of Sunak, Johnson, and other key figures in the Covid-19 inquiry will provide a crucial platform to scrutinize the government’s decisions and actions during the pandemic. The public and political landscape eagerly awaits the revelations that will undoubtedly shape public opinion and potentially impact future elections.
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