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It's a tough week for Rishi Sunak, who faces grilling on COVID-19 decisions

COVID campaigners and families of those who died during the pandemic hold placards outside COVID Inquiry at Dorland House, where British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is giving evidence, in London, Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein) COVID campaigners and families of those who died during the pandemic hold placards outside COVID Inquiry at Dorland House, where British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is giving evidence, in London, Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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LONDON -

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced a rebellion from restive lawmakers over his signature immigration policy, while fending off tough questions Monday about his judgment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The twin pressures add up to one of the toughest weeks of Sunak's 13 months in office, with both his present authority and past record at stake.

Legislation intended to salvage Sunak's blocked plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda faces a vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday. While disparate groups of Conservative lawmakers met in Parliament to pick holes in the bill, Sunak was undergoing a six-hour grilling at the U.K.'s pandemic inquiry, where he denied taking risks with public health.

Sunak was Treasury chief to Prime Minister Boris Johnson when the pandemic hit, and backed a discount initiative that encouraged people to go back to restaurants in August 2020 after months of lockdown.

The government's scientific advisers have told the inquiry that they weren't informed in advance about the "Eat Out to Help Out" program, which scientists have linked to a rise in infections. One senior government science adviser referred to Sunak in a message to colleagues at the time as "Dr. Death."

Sunak denied there had been "a clash between public health and economics" when it came to confronting the pandemic, which authorities said left more than 230,000 people dead in the U.K.

He said that he saw his role "as making sure the prime minister had the best possible advice, information and analysis relating to the economic impact" of potential measures. He stressed that Johnson, as prime minister at the time, was "the ultimate and sole decision-maker."

Johnson told the inquiry last week that the restaurant plan "was not at the time presented to me as something that would add to the budget of risk."

Sunak also denied seeing a warning from government scientific advisers in late June 2020 about the risks of opening up society. He defended his decision not to consult scientists about the "Eat Out to Help Out" plan, saying the government "had already made the collective decision to reopen indoor hospitality."

Sunak began his testimony by apologizing to everyone who suffered during the pandemic and said it was important to "learn the lessons so that we can be better prepared in the future."

His evidence didn't, however, include his WhatsApp messages from the time. Sunak claimed they had been lost during several changes of phone since then.

Johnson also has been unable to produce messages from several key months in 2020, saying they are on an old phone for which he has forgotten the password and tech experts have been unable to retrieve them.

Inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith said that Johnson's administration had been described by staff as "criminally incompetent or operationally chaotic." Sunak said he didn't recognize the description, though there had been "vigorous" debate about major decisions.

Meanwhile, Sunak is battling to save the Rwanda plan, a key part of to his pledge to stop unauthorized migrants from trying to reach England from France in small boats. More than 29,000 people have done so this year, down from 46,000 in all of 2022.

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gives an update on the plan to "stop the boats" and illegal migration during a press conference in the Downing Street Briefing Room in London, Thursday Dec. 7, 2023. (James Manning/Pool via AP)

The plan has already cost the government 240 million pounds (US$300 million) in payments to Rwanda, which agreed in 2022 to process and settle hundreds of asylum-seekers a year from the U.K. But no one has yet been sent to the country, and last month the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that the plan was illegal, saying Rwanda isn't a safe destination for refugees.

In response, Britain and Rwanda signed a treaty pledging to strengthen protections for migrants. Sunak's government argues that the treaty allows it to pass a law declaring Rwanda a safe destination, regardless of the Supreme Court ruling.

The law, if approved by Parliament, would allow the government to "disapply" sections of U.K. human rights law when it comes to Rwanda-related asylum claims and make it harder to challenge the deportations in court.

The bill faces opposition from centrist Conservative lawmakers concerned that it sidelines the courts, and from legislators on the party's authoritarian wing who think the legislation is too mild because it leaves migrants some legal routes to challenge deportation, including at the European Court of Human Rights.

The hard-line European Research Group of Conservative lawmakers said that the bill "provides a partial and incomplete solution" and needs major changes. Group member Mark Francois urged Sunak to rework the bill before putting it to a vote, but didn't say whether he would vote against it if that didn't happen.

If the bill passes Tuesday's vote, weeks of wrangling and more votes in Parliament lie ahead. Defeat would leave the Rwanda plan in tatters, and would threaten Sunak's leadership.

Sunak believes delivering on his promise to "stop the boats" will allow the Conservatives to close a big opinion-poll gap with the opposition Labour Party before an election that must be held in the next year.

But some Tory lawmakers think he is bound to fail, and are contemplating a change of leader. Under party rules, Sunak will face a no-confidence vote if 53 lawmakers -- 15% of the Conservative total -- call for one.

Others argue that it would be disastrous to remove yet another prime minister without a national election. Sunak is the third Conservative prime minister since the last election in 2019, after the party ejected both Johnson and his successor, Liz Truss.

Lawmaker Damian Green, a leading Conservative moderate, said that anyone who wanted to change the party leader again is "either mad, or malicious, or both."

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