Fraser Nelson Fraser Nelson

What Sunak really said about lockdown

Rishi Sunak at the Covid Inquiry (Credit: Getty images)

In the dying days of Rishi Sunak’s leadership campaign, he gave an interview to The Spectator about lockdown which he was grilled on today at the Covid Inquiry. At the time he was speaking candidly as he had nothing to lose: it was clear that Liz Truss would win the Tory leadership contest. Now, he is Prime Minister and has to defend the record of the Conservative government, including decisions he argued against. So he was in a difficult position when the inquiry asked him about he had told me in that interview.

When lockdown struck, Sunak had just been made Chancellor and was relatively new to government. There was an aspect of Mr Smith Goes to Washington about his disbelief at the way lockdown was implemented without any recognition about the harm it would cause. He thought government had a duty to level with people, and say that it would have the following risks but they thought it was worthwhile. Why, he asked, should people not be told the truth? Isn’t it basic ethics to run a cost-benefit analysis in any public health question?

The common cost-benefit exercise in public health is called a QALY exercise: counting the pros and cons not in just crude lives lost or saved but ‘quality-adjusted life year.’ So the death of a 20-year-old is weighted higher than that of a 90-year-old. But this was not conducted as the government wanted no recognition of side-effects or tradeoffs. Lockdown was, at most, to be presented as “frustrating” the damage it would inflict upon society and the economy was never to be referenced. It was a see-no-evil policy.

As Sunak told me in that interview…

The general sense was: no trade-offs. The general sense was: over-index for fear. I was very nervous because my analytical side of me was saying: “Clearly we should be having a QALY analysis… Any health economist would do this analytically with a QALY analysis, because that’s how you do it.

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