by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 25
February 2021
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15:19

A second helping of Eat Out to Help Out? Don’t make me sick!

It is a backwards, overcomplicated way to subsidise the restaurant industry
by Tom Chivers
I’ll give you cheap dinner if you promise to go and breathe Covid fumes in a roomful of strangers. Credit: Getty

I partook of Eat Out to Help Out, last summer. It was an accident. We were driving to a holiday let and stopped to buy lunch (which we ate outside); the cost for all four of us was only a tenner, because, it turned out, Rishi Sunak was picking up the tab.

EOTHO ended in August, but now there are rumours that Sunak wants to bring it back. I don’t like criticising political decisions much, because I don’t have to make them, and it’s easy to criticise from the sidelines — but in this case, I’ll make an exception. It seems absolutely insane to me.

A study last October suggested that EOTHO caused “between 8 to 17 percent of all new local infection clusters” while it was in place. It’s very hard to use observational studies like this to say what caused what, and I’ve seen some criticism of the methods, but it’s hardly a shocking, implausible hypothesis that incentivising people to sit in badly ventilated rooms for two hours might have driven infections.

And it’s likely we’ll still be seeing reasonable levels of Covid well into the summer, so it would be unsurprising if it did it again. That may not lead to huge numbers of deaths, if most of the most vulnerable are vaccinated, but it may well lead to mutations arising which render the vaccines less effective.

But also — I don’t know, I’m not an economist, but it strikes me as a weirdly backwards, overcomplicated way to subsidise the restaurant industry. The Treasury spent £849 million on EOTHO last time around. That’s not a huge amount in terms of the national budget — a bit less than a thousandth of the government’s total expenditure. But apparently 52,000 businesses registered for the scheme. The government could have simply given each of them £16,000 for the same cost.

I don’t suppose that would keep them all afloat. But I don’t suppose EOTHO kept them all afloat either (quite a few places near me seem to be permanently closed). And at least you wouldn’t be deliberately encouraging people to spread the virus.

Even better: why not give some of the money in tax breaks to help restaurants establish takeaway services or outdoor eating? Incentivise genuinely Covid-safe ways of doing business? Since last summer, it has become much clearer that SARS-Cov2 is an airborne virus. All that Covid theatre when you went in a restaurant last year, all the gaps between tables and ostentatiously empty place-settings — all the waiters leaving your dinner at the end of the table so they didn’t come too near you, all the spray-cleaning of toilet-door handles — was just that: theatre. You were still sitting in a soup of floating viral particles.

Insofar as I have any clue about the economics of it at all, it seems entirely sensible to spend lots of money boosting the economy, and borrowing to do so at historically low interest rates; I have no problem with that. But surely we can find smarter ways of doing it than “I’ll give you cheap dinner if you promise to go and breathe Covid fumes in a roomful of strangers.”

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  • I really don’t know why you would rely on a paper written by someone from the Economics department of the University of Warwick to assess whether EOTHO caused a massive spike in COVID. Not that Economics isn’t a great subject – I have a first class degree in it – some of my best friends are people with Economics degrees, and Warwick is a fine institution.
    If only there were some reliable government source reporting the settings for incidences of acute respiratory infections, analysed by week. Oh, wait! There is. It’s called the “Weekly Flu and COVID19 surveillance report”, issued by Public Health England. Page 21 of this week’s report, which I found via Google in about ten seconds, which helpfully sets out the setting “Food Outlet/Restaurant”. As I suspected, vanishingly small number of ARIs in restaurants, even when they were open. Eyeballing page 25, looks like about a maximum of 40 a week during the summer.
    Tom had better go and change the bedclothes *again*.

  • Actually, to the extent we know anything about Covid the ‘sitting in a soup of viral particles’ is what doesn’t happen, unless you have a ventilation system that is actively circulating the soup. Look up “SARS-CoV-2 Transmission among Marine Recruits during Quarantine” in the New England Journal of Medicine. The recruits who caught covid after some very stringent quarantine measures spread it to members of their own platoons — whom they ate lunch with, an ddid other things with, though mostly outdoors — and members whom they roomed with. They didn’t spread it to members of other platoons who shared the same lunch area at a different time, or sharede hallways or bathrooms, which is what you would expect if a cloud of covid germs hung around in the lunchroom after unknowingly sick soldiers ate to be breathed in by soldiers in the next platoons to eat. Apparantly, the viral particles fall out of the air pretty quickly. So the measures taken to keep each table separate appears to be more than just theatre.

  • one of the fact of life is death. I have not met anyone who survived this final event. Given the limited time of life, I rather take responsibility of my own actions including the risks. this is for walking on the street or going into a caffee/restaurant as well as travel.
    if you like to stay home, be vaccinated and have the mask on. it is your choice – not mine. So please let me have my right to my choise and you keep yours.

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