Chancellor Rishi Sunak has confirmed that he opposed the circuit breaker Covid-19 lockdown scientific experts recommended in September as coronavirus cases began to climb, but said ultimately the decision lay with the prime minister.
In a wide ranging interview with ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston, Mr Sunak said in Cabinet he made the case against a circuit-breaking lockdown due to the “impact” it would have on “people’s jobs and livelihoods”, and that he believed it would be “bad for the economy” and “long-term health as well”.
Despite the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) recommending a lockdown in a bid to stop Covid cases increasing, Mr Sunak said it was his “job” to “provide the prime minister with the best advice” in his “area of expertise.
“In the same way that you’d expect the education secretary to feed in about this; the impact on children’s education and learning, you’d expect me in my job to talk about the impact on people’s jobs and livelihoods and ultimately things that are bad for the economy are bad for our long term health as well and our ability to fund things like the NHS.
“And those things have to go into the decision.
These are difficult decisions to make, and it’s why we weigh up all those factors”.
Mr Sunak insisted that “at the time it wasn’t a clear-cut case” and that one of the deputy chief medical officers said it would “not be appropriate… for a national intervention”.
He continued that there was a “varied epidemiological picture” across the country so a “national intervention… wasn’t considered one that wouldn’t necessarily make sense.
“And actually, you know, Wales went down that route and it didn’t in the end stop what needed to happen.”
The 40-year-old continued that while he and other ministers provided “input” from their respective rolls, “ultimately” the decision was made by Boris Johnson who “has to weight these things up”.
Mr Sunak said the PM has to “day in, day out” make “enormously difficult decisions and I don’t think we should underestimate, you know, the trade-offs involved in these things”.
The fastest economic recovery in 100 years?
As coronavirus restrictions across the UK begin to ease and the economy reopens, Andy Haldane the Chief Economist at the Bank of England previously told Peston that he expects the recovery to be the fastest in at least 100 years.
During a visit to an engineering firm in Grimsby, Mr Sunak said he was “optimistic” and “confident that we’re in a good position to recover strongly”.
The chancellor said this was due in part to the furlough scheme which had ensured “millions of jobs have been protected that otherwise would have been lost”.
He continued that the super deduction which is set to come into force on Thursday will encourage businesses “to invest those savings and in doing so drive the recovery forward and create jobs”.
When he unveiled the super deduction in the Budget, Mr Sunak said companies could reduce their tax bill by 130% of the cost when they invest in new machinery.
The chancellor also said the success of the vaccine rollout was “enabling” the government to “safely” reopen the economy.
As of the end of Monday, March 29, almost 30.7 million (58.2%) adults in the UK had had at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, whole almost 3.7 million (7.3%) had had both.
David Cameron’s reported lobbying text messages
Mr Sunak was also asked about reports former prime minister David Cameron sent him a number of text messages, lobbying for emergency loans for Greensill Capital, a finance company he was advising, through the government’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility.
The business collapsed earlier this month but there are fears its demise could trigger the collapse of Liberty Steel, taking with it 5,000 jobs.
Mr Cameron has been cleared of breaking lobbying rules for his dealings with Greensill Capital by the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists – a watchdog created by the former prime minister.
When questioned about the approaches by Mr Cameron, Mr Sunak said the government “rejected the suggestion and so I didn’t want to take that forward”.
He added: “I think it’s important that, whoever people are, whether they’re prime ministers or anyone else, that they follow the rules and the guidelines that we have in place for lobbying.
“And we have the rules in place for good reason.
“And I think whoever you are it’s important processes are appropriately followed.”
‘Levelling up’ the UK
Questioned on the Conservatives’s 2019 manifesto pledge to “level up” the country, Mr Sunak said his focus was on the “opportunity gap” rather than the income gap and that “it’s not just about north and south…
“There are plenty of people across the country who feel they haven’t had the opportunities that they deserve and that opportunity is not evenly spread across our nation.
“And that equally applies if you’re probably growing up, potentially, in a village in the south-west of England as you are in a town in the north.
“So it’s not about north versus south, it’s not about urban versus rural. It’s just about everyone feeling that they’ve got a shot at success.”
Mr Sunak said his focus would be on “the availability of skills and education.
“We know how important that is for people to make a success of their lives.”
He continued that the government was focusing on improving transport in a bid to make opportunities in big cities more accessible for those who do not live in them.
Controversial race review
Peston also questioned Mr Sunak on a landmark race review published on Wednesday which found that Britain is no longer a country where the “system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”.
However, critics have hit out at the report, with Labour’s Lisa Nandy saying: “It seems to downplay the structural experiences of discrimination, racism and inequality that a lot of people simply face on a day to day basis.”
Mr Sunak said he had not yet read the report but believed it was a “very comprehensive piece of work” and that the country should feel “proud” of the “enormous progress” it has made.
“If I think about the things that happened to me when I was a kid, I can’t imagine those things happening to me now,” the Richmond MP said.
However, he said that “instances of racism” do “exist in this country” and that he hoped the report acknowledged “there’s further work to do”.
The chancellor highlighted the “ethnic minority pay gap, the changes in educational attainment, diversity in all police forces” as “areas which I hope the report will recognise”.
The need to stop using the term ‘BAME’
Mr Sunak also agreed with the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report’s recommendation that the acronym BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) should no longer be used as “not all ethnic minority groups are the same, people will have different experiences” and the country should be “respectful and sensitive” to this.
Will the chancellor publish his tax returns?
Questioned if he would be releasing his tax returns like former chancellor George Osborne, Mr Sunak said he would not but that he follows “all the cabinet office guidelines and they have all the details”.