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Covid-19 Inquiry: Sunak brushes off concerns about his Eat Out to Help Out scheme

Labour pledges to appoint Covid corruption commissioner with powers to recover billions lost to fraudulent claims during the pandemic

PRIME MINISTER Rishi Sunak brushed off concerns about his Eat Out to Help Out discount hospitality scheme during the first day of his appearance at the Covid-19 inquiry today.

But while Mr Sunak was denying the scheme helped spread the virus, the Labour Party pledged to appoint a Covid corruption commissioner with powers to recover the billions lost to fraudulent claims during the pandemic.

Shadow Treasury secretary Darren Jones said: “Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was lost to fraud and corruption during the pandemic on Rishi Sunak’s watch and yet the Conservatives are turning a blind eye and letting those responsible off the hook.”

Mr Jones explained the commissioner would have powers to recover the money and said it would be used for schools, hospitals and police.

The pledge came after research revealed that thousands of Covid fraud tip-offs have not been pursued, with 98 per cent of calls not being investigated.

The Covid fraud hotline was set up in October 2020, but two years on only 103 investigations are still ongoing from the 5,124 actionable calls made to the hotline, just 2 per cent of the total tip-offs the government received.

The PM has faced heavy criticism after he ignored warnings about the support he set up to as chancellor to alleviate the stresses of Covid. In March 2020, British Business Bank chief executive Keith Morgan said: “The scheme is vulnerable to abuse by individuals and by participants in organised crime.”

Former counter-fraud minister Lord Agnew resigned in January 2022 in protest at the writing-off of losses from fraud and waste, criticising the Treasury under Mr Sunak's leadership as appearing “to have no knowledge of, or little interest in, the consequences of fraud to our economy or society.”

The latest House of Commons Library analysis of government reports estimates that Covid-related fraud in government support schemes is £7.2 billion.

The PM’s appearance at the Covid-19 inquiry has been eagerly awaited. Mr Sunak echoed other Tory ministers with an apology to the British people saying he was “deeply sorry” to those who lost loved ones and to “all those who suffered.”

He also repeated former PM Boris Johnson’s excuse that he could not provide his WhatsApp messages to the inquiry as he had changed his phone several times — despite IT experts claiming it is a simple matter to retrieve old messages.

The PM rejected claims that The Eat Out scheme helped spread Covid-19 and said it had protected workers from the “devastating consequences” of job losses.

The scheme was introduced by the then chancellor in summer 2020 in a bid to support the hospitality sector as Britain emerged from coronavirus restrictions imposed during the first lockdown.

The policy has been heavily scrutinised by the UK Covid-19 inquiry, with questions about whether scientists were consulted about the plan and whether it contributed to the spread of infection.

Mr Sunak told the inquiry that he still believed Eat Out to Help Out had been the right thing to do to protect what he said were millions of jobs held by “particularly vulnerable people.”

The plan, part of Mr Sunak’s summer economic update in July 2020, offered 50 per cent off the cost of food and non-alcoholic drinks. It has been claimed by both scientific advisers and former health secretary Matt Hancock that the first they knew of it was when it was made public.

Professor 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.”

Sir Patrick Vallance, who was chief scientific adviser, previously told the inquiry the scheme was “highly likely” to have fuelled deaths.

Questioned by lead counsel Hugo Keith KC, Mr Sunak said such concerns were not raised with him despite a one-month gap between it being announced and the discount coming into effect.

TUC assistant general secretary Kate Bell accused Mr Sunak of displaying a lack of “candour and accountability” with his evidence. She said he failed to recollect vital details on over 20 occasions — and his failure to provide decent sick pay and financial support for those self-isolating had cost the country dear.

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