Rishi Sunak’s “eat out to help out” scheme will come under scrutiny at the Covid inquiry on Monday, with the prime minister facing the committee while fighting off increasing hostility from his own MPs.
It is expected that Sunak will be questioned on whether he felt scientists were given too much power and if insufficient consideration was given to the economic impact of lockdowns.
His appearance at the Covid inquiry in west London comes as he faces pressure from Conservative backbenchers before a crucial vote on his Rwanda legislation on Tuesday.
Senior Tories from across the party warned Sunak that his emergency plan would never become law in its current form.
Liberal Tories confirmed on Sunday that, despite their desire to back the PM against the party’s right, “serious concerns” remain about the plan and more reassurances would be required.
However, before Sunak faces the most crucial test of his premiership to date in the Commons, he will be grilled over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic during his time as chancellor.
Messages have revealed that government scientists referred to him as “Dr Death” over concerns about his push to keep economic activity going while leading the Treasury during the pandemic.
In potentially damaging testimony, Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser during the pandemic, said he would be “very surprised” if Sunak had not learned about objections to his plan to help the hospitality industry.
Sunak had written to the inquiry saying he “[did] not recall any concerns about the scheme” being raised in ministerial meetings despite growing concerns that the discount plan could fuel the spread of the virus.
But Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, is said to have privately referred to the scheme to boost the restaurant industry as “eat out to help out the virus”.
Michael Gove defended Sunak over the weekend, arguing there was no “public critique” of the eat out to help out scheme before its launch in August 2020.
“It was an effective way of ensuring that the hospitality industry was supported through a very difficult period, and it was entirely within the broad outlines of rules about social mixing that prevailed at the time,” the levelling up secretary told Sky’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips programme.
The plan formed part of Sunak’s summer economic update on 8 July 2020, and provided 50% off the cost of food and/or non-alcoholic drinks.
The former deputy chief medical officer Prof Sir Jonathan Van-Tam said the scheme “didn’t feel sensible” because it was encouraging exactly what officials had been trying to stop in previous months.
Sunak is also expected to be confronted over his claims that he could not deliver WhatsApp messages covering a crucial period because he had changed phones several times and the messages had not been backed up.
There have subsequently been reports that pranksters were able to access a longstanding phone number for Sunak, which rang before playing a voicemail recording.
Questions are now being asked over whether Sunak has handed the inquiry access to material associated with that number.