In its latest wave of coronavirus restrictions, the UK government enforced a 10pm curfew on restaurants and bars, because of a spike in Covid-19 cases. But experts are now pointing to the recent Eat Out to Help Out scheme and packed restaurants for the increase in infections.
After an extended period of lockdown, in which pubs and restaurants were completely closed, the government of the UK introduced its much-vaunted Eat Out to Help Out scheme, essentially pumping half a billion pounds into the hospitality industry. The scheme picked up half the tab on meals and soft drinks up to the value of £10 per person.
It was considered a success, with people flocking to restaurants. However Toby Phillips, a public policy researcher at the University of Oxford, says that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme can be directly linked to the new spike in Covid numbers.
Data from booking platform Open Table showed that in August, when the scheme began, people ate out twice as often on the days the scheme was in effect.
Based on OpenTable data, using Toby Phillips' analysis
“But we also have to consider the long-term trend,” writes Phillips for The Conversation. “By the start of August, restaurant attendance had already bounced back to near 2019 levels. People were basically going out as normal, so the half-price discount scheme didn’t encourage a ‘return to normal’; it encouraged extravagant levels of eating out.”
While the Eat Out to Help Out scheme ran on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the data available indicates that people ate out as they would have done ‘as normal’ on Thursdays to Sundays anyway.
So did the scheme achieve its goals? In terms of stimulating spending within the restaurant industry, it worked. In terms of stimulating confidence in the general public to venture out to eat, it was perhaps too effective.
At the same time the scheme was coming into effect, there was a parallel uptick in the number of infections, which overwhelmed testing facilities and led to localised restrictions. The cause of this initial rise is unknown, but thought to be linked to a returning confidence, especially among younger people, and increased travel around summer vacationing.
UK government data/Toby Phillips' analysis
“Looking at the English regions, there is a loose correlation between uptake of the scheme and new cases in the last weeks of August,” writes Philips. “Again, this isn’t to say that the scheme caused those cases. But it certainly didn’t discourage those people from going out.”
While the Eat Out to Help Out scheme undoubtedly offered a lifeline to struggling restaurant owners and their staff, the short-term gains should be weighed against the long-term effects on the economy and public health at large. Many restaurants who might have hired extra staff to help with the August surge in custom are now facing more severe restrictions as the winter months and the dreaded flu season draws near.
New cases detected in the last two weeks of August, per 100,000 of population. UK government data/Toby Phillips' analysis
It seems the government is reluctant to enforce a nationwide lockdown order on the restaurant industry, which would be devastating, but the current 10 pm curfew may only exacerbate the situation, as people leave work early to get to the pubs earlier, and everyone spills out on the streets at the same time every evening, using public transport to get home.
As other major metropolitan areas like New York begin to allow indoor dining at reduced capacity, many are looking to the UK’s Eat out to Help Out scheme as a model to emulate. It can’t be denied that it helps businesses, but there must be lessons learned from the UK’s approach.