It is a backwards, overcomplicated way to subsidise the restaurant industry
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.”