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Covid Inquiry: Rishi Sunak Called Dr Death By Top Scientist

Indians at UK - Covid Pandemic

The government’s new chief scientific adviser described Rishi Sunak as “Dr Death, the Chancellor” in private messages sent during a crucial pandemic meeting, the Covid inquiry has heard. Prof Dame Angela McLean made the comment in a WhatsApp exchange in September 2020. The government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme had been running that summer. At the time, there was fierce debate about the need for social-distancing measures to control the virus.

On Sunday 20 September 2020, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a Zoom meeting of scientists to discuss the government’s response to sharply rising Covid infections. Dame Angela, then chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence, who co-chaired the influential SPI-M modeling group during the pandemic, was one of the attendees, along with her colleague Prof John Edmunds, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

Indians at UK - Covid Pandemic

‘Still angry’

Then Chancellor Rishi Sunak also dialled in, along with senior Downing Street officials including Dominic Cummings, the government’s chief medical adviser, Prof Chris Whitty, and the then chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. On Thursday, the Covid inquiry was shown a private WhatsApp exchange between Dame Angela and Prof Edmunds, sent at the time of the meeting, which refers to Rishi Sunak as “Dr Death, the Chancellor”.

Prof Edmunds told the inquiry he was unable to recall if that had been a specific reference to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which had subsidised food in pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues over the summer, while Covid cases had been low. But in earlier testimony to the inquiry, he said he was “still angry” about the policy. “It was one thing to take your foot off the brake – but another to put your foot on the accelerator,” he said.

‘Epidemiological Risk’

Prof Edmunds told the inquiry 45,000 people had just died – and while the pub and restaurant sector needed support, the government could have just given them money. “This was a scheme to encourage people to take an epidemiological risk,” he added. Asked about Prof Angela McLean’s description of Mr Sunak as Dr Death and whether she should apologise, the PM’s spokeswoman said he was allowing the inquiry to continue and would not comment on individual points raised by it. Naomi Fulop, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, said the Eat Out to Help Out scheme contributed to the loss of thousands of lives and put unnecessary pressure on the NHS.

Indians at UK - Covid Pandemic

“When our current chief scientific advisor has referred to our prime minister as ‘Dr Death’, how can any of us have faith in our government if another pandemic strikes?” she said. The Downing Street meeting had also involved scientists from what Sir Patrick Vallance described in an email as the “let it rip” brigade. That included Carl Heneghan, a professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University, and his colleague Prof Sunetra Gupta – both of whom were critics of several lockdown-related measures. In her WhatsApp exchange, Dame Angela uses an expletive to refer to an individual – thought to be Prof Heneghan – and his evidence, to which Prof Edmunds replies: “Every statistic is wrong.”

‘Brain dump’ diary

Earlier in the day the inquiry chair, Baroness Hallett, ruled that only relevant extracts from informal diaries kept by Sir Patrick Vallance could be shown on screen and on the inquiry website. Lawyers for Sir Patrick had called for restrictions on full pages been displayed as this would breach his privacy rights. Lady Hallett said it was “premature” to decide the issue now but she would monitor and review the situation after a challenge by eight media organisations including the BBC. The inquiry itself is taking witness evidence in London until Christmas, before moving to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.


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