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by Zoe Crowther
31 October 2023
Ex-spin doctor tells UK Covid inquiry the government ignored scientists on Eat Out to Help Out scheme

Lee Cain, former director of communications in Number 10, leaves the Covid-19 Inquiry after giving evidence.

Ex-spin doctor tells UK Covid inquiry the government ignored scientists on Eat Out to Help Out scheme

Lee Cain, the former director of communications at No 10 from 2019 to 2020, has told the UK Covid Inquiry that the government ignored advice from scientists and businesses to implement the Eat Out to Help Out scheme after the first lockdown period, when it was "incredibly clear" the UK would have to enter lockdown again after that point.

A number of senior politicians including former prime minister David Cameron, ex-chancellor George Osborne and the current deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden have already given evidence to the inquiry, which is investigating the effectiveness and decision-making behind the UK government's response to the pandemic.

Martin Reynolds, the principal private secretary to Boris Johnson during the key stages of the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic, admitted to the inquiry yesterday that the government was constantly "playing catch up" as it lacked "strategic direction".

Giving evidence today, Cain criticised the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, which offered government-subsidised meals and non-alcoholic drinks at restaurants and cafes in August 2020 to encourage businesses to reopen after the first Covid-19 lockdown period.

"That is fine if you are intent on never having to do suppression measures again..." Cain told the inquiry. "But from all of the evidence and advice we were receiving, it was incredibly clear we were certainly going to have to do suppression measures again, we knew that all the way through, that was the strategy from the start."

Cain said it seemed the government was "on its own demanding people should return to work", while even businesses were still encouraging employees and customers to stay at home, and the scientific advice to government explicitly warned against loosening lockdown measures too soon.

He added that for him, the fact that the government was going against such advice was a "source of great frustration".

The former Downing Street aide also admitted that "a lot of the policy" being drafted in the early months of the pandemic was being led by communications professionals rather than civil servants working in policy.

"The communications side drove a huge amount of the government machine during my entire time," Cain said.

"Looking at areas of policy, its often comms colleagues who can find the holes and see where the problems are. There were periods when a lot of the policy was being shaped by the communications professionals because there wasn’t anyone else doing it to any great level, which was a surprising thing to have to deal with on my side.

"There was nobody holding their hands up and taking responsibility."

Cain agreed with Reynolds that the government did not have a "plan" for the pandemic, saying: "The detail of how you were going to do this thing was absent."

Discussing the role of Johnson, Cain told the inquiry that the former PM had been keen to prevent the government being "swept up in a media hysteria".

"He was alive to the fact that previous health issues that had taken hold had proved to be not as first as anticipated," Cain said, referring to the fact that Johnson had referenced previous pandemic threats that had not fully taken hold in the UK as a reason to not lock down the entire country in response to Covid-19.

WhatsApp messages shown to the inquiry included a message from Johnson to Cain where the former prime minister said "there is no limit to the stuff I am willing to do to show we are gripping this" – emphasising the importance of the communications strategy to No 10's approach at the time.

Cain added that comments by the then-prime minister in spring 2020 that the pandemic could be finished within 12 weeks had been "unhelpful" as the government should have been "transparent" and "realistic" about the serious threat posed by the virus.

"It was the wrong crisis for this prime minister's skill set," Cain said. 

"He's somebody who would often delay making decisions, and seek counsel from multiple sources and change his mind on different issues.

"If you look at something like Covid, you need quick decisions and you need someone to hold the course and not constantly unpick things."

The inquiry discussed a series of damning WhatsApp exchanges between Cain, Johnson, and Dominic Cummings, then-chief of staff to the prime minister. 

One message from Cummings described government ministers as "useless f**kpigs in charge" and said the Cabinet was "feral".

“I also must stress I think leaving Hancock in post is a big mistake – he is a proven liar who nobody believes or should believe on anything, and we face going into autumn crisis with the cunt in charge of NHS still," Cummings wrote in one message.

Cummings will also give evidence to the inquiry.

Another exchange showed that Johnson had felt the government needed to "recalibrate" the idea of lockdown due to most Covid fatalities being among older age groups.

"I must say I have been slightly rocked by some of the data on Covid fatalities. The median age is 82-81 for men [and] 85 for women. That is above life expectancy. So get Covid and live longer," Johnson wrote in a message to Cain.

"And I no longer buy all this NHS overwhelmed stuff. Folks I think we may need to recalibrate."

He continued: "It shows we don't go for nationwide lockdown."

Questioned by the inquiry on whether he felt this showed the prime minister wanted to let Covid infect the older population in order to allow young people to continue with their lives, Cain responded: "You can see from the evidence he was concerned about the damage on society as a whole."

Cain also criticised a lack of diversity in the people involved in decision-making in No 10 at the time, the majority of whom were described as "white and middle aged". 

"There was a lack of understanding what families were going through at the time," he said.

"This was just one example of many that if you had had more diversity in the room it would have improved decision making and improved policymaking."

Cain had advocated for the 'bubble' system to prevent the issue of families being seperated during lockdown, but was met with resistance from colleagues who he thought lacked understanding of the potential harms.

Questioned on the comms strategy relating to Covid lockdowns, Cain defended the public health slogan of "Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives", which he was responsible for.

He said he had not directly consulted with NHS leaders, despite concerns that the slogan could discourage people from attending hospital for other serious health problems.

The inquiry continues.


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