Eat Out to Help Out may have driven UK coronavirus spike, figures suggest

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The Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out initiative has been hailed a game-changer for the hospitality industry, saving hundreds of restaurants from immediate collapse and millions of jobs in the process.

The scheme, which gave diners 50% off their meals throughout August, saw restaurant bookings soar by 216% with more than 100million subsidised meals claimed on the back of it.

However, new figures suggest a correlation between the scheme and the sudden rise in coronavirus transmission rates, with 3,000 more infections recorded in the past 24-hours.

It’s sparked one of the biggest crackdowns on social gatherings since lockdown was eased over summer, with Boris Johnson set to impose a new “rule of six” from Monday across England.

At the start of July, restaurants were still closed under government orders. However, as the new scheme came into force, restaurant bookings rocketed, with crowds gathering on the high street for the first time since March.

It prompted a 216% surge in restaurant bookings on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when the scheme was active, according to OpenTable.

One report by the University of Oxford said the scheme led to an “extravagant” surge in people dining out.

“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,” it said.

“But when the scheme ended, things went right back to where they would have been. At the start of September there were more outings than at the start of August, but no more than would have been expected based on the long-term trend of reopening. There seems to be virtually no lasting impact on people’s consumption.”

“At the same time as the scheme was operating, the UK started to see an uptick in COVID-19 cases. This overwhelmed testing capacity and caused some regions to reimpose restrictions.”

“Admittedly, people were also coming back from summer holidays and spending more time with friends. Transmission rates were already creeping up in early August, before there could have been any effect from the Eat Out scheme.

“But the rapid acceleration in the proportion of detected positive cases at the start of September is consistent with cases where infection occurred in mid-August,” the report argues.

“It’s certainly worth considering the effect of a £10 discount at the pub. And the effect of concentrating people’s outings on just three days of the week.

“In future, policymakers should heed the lessons from this experience. Rather than trying to encourage a big-bang “back to normal”, governments should settle in for the long haul: encouraging and establishing patterns of behaviour that are safe and consistent with a pandemic.”

The report suggests an extension of subsidised loans, debt support and payroll help to support struggling businesses long-term.

“If the goal is to get people out and spending on high streets, policies should also be designed to keep people spread out (for example, allowing people to spread consumption across the week, and including take-out).”

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