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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John Warren
John Warren
1 year ago

I partook of Eat Out to Help Out, last summer. It was deliberate. It was terrific – it kept a suffering business afloat, it lifted my family’s spirits and it was a joy since we are more budget conscious than many. There’s more to life than avoiding viruses.

Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago
Reply to  John Warren

I was going to say the same thing.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  John Warren

TINSTAAFL (there is no such thing as a free lunch) But there is somthing about luxuries being paid for on an extremely uneven base by the taxpayer which reeks of Louis XVIism weirdness.

But, yes, there is more to life than avoiding viruses, and this writer also blames the covid increases on this deal. How about the Tube? How about the grocery shopping? How about just everything? This EOTHO was a very creepy grant to people indirectly, luxury freebees to some, paid for by others.. Just give the restaurants money if that is where it needs to go. Better, fallow the Florida model and let people carry on as they feel best.

John Chestwig
John Chestwig
1 year ago

That may…may well lead to mutations arising which render the vaccines less effective.
I’m sorry Tom, but I think you’ve last track of what you’re fighting for and what you think the end result should be.
The virus will mutate. Some mutations will be more resistant to the virus. Some people will die. Some new vaccines will be developed. The virus will mutate further. Some more people will die. And on and on and on.
It does not matter how much money we spend, how many businesses we close down, how many people we put under house arrest, how many people we imprison or what sort of electronic tracking devices we compel people to carry. People will die and the virus will mutate, ad infinitum.
The main question now, is whether ‘the partial cure’ is worse than the disease. If it is, the Governments will never admit it, most of the press will never admit it and most of the public who have gone along with and acted as cheerleaders for it, will never admit it – the mind cannot face the terrible truth of what we have done to ourselves and others.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  John Chestwig

Of course the virus will mutate. But are you suggesting that increasing the number of infected people has no effect on the number of mutant variants of COVID? It doesn’t just mutate on its own, you know – it mutates while being reproduced in infected people. So more victims means more mutant variants, and more risk of vaccine resistance and resistance to treatment

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

Even better: why not give some of the money in tax breaks to help restaurants establish takeaway services or outdoor eating? 
Even better than better: how about stop pretending govt knows best and stop depriving people of the means to earn a living. Devising new schemes through which govt can try to fix the problems it caused is the sort of thing I expect from govt, though the media often act as govt’s PR wing.

Tim Gardener
Tim Gardener
1 year ago

The full sentence from the paper cited reads as follows: “A back of the envelope calculation suggests that the program is accountable for between 8 to 17 percent of all new local infection clusters during that time period”
Back of the envelope? It gives rather a different impression. The core logic of the working paper is bizarre. It’s unwise of Tom to quote it at all.
What percentage of covid infections were acquired in hospital? That is a more reliable number and a rather higher one.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
1 year ago

The spike in infections linked to ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ is a bit of a stretch. As someone else observed saying that upto 17% of cases involved were people who’d used ‘EOTHO’ within the previous week is kind of meaningless, I expect 50% of them had eaten chicken in the previous week too. Also a lot of pubs etc are packed most of the time – so if they were open and serving food they’d have been near full anyway.
‘EOTHO’ did seem particularly silly and as the author says overly complex. It should be remembered that back then the government seemed convinced that a combination of cleaning your hands, wearing face masks, track and trace, and restrictions/lockdown would save the day – so the economy needed restarting.
Those who predicted no large 2nd wave because of aquired immunity are pilloried as at best fools, normally evil. Those in government and SAGE who were in charge pretended that lockdown and other measures meant they were in control – they were even more mistaken, they failed to prepare for a 2nd wave – but luckily for them they control the narrative.
Good to see Tom Chivers using terms like “All that Covid theatre”, the reality (hopefully massively receding with vacines) should have always encouraged vulnerable people to avoided enclosed spaces outside their home, this would not have been ‘discrimination’ or unfair. Dumping positive people into care homes and denying residents treatment, now that’s discrimination.

Last edited 1 year ago by LUKE LOZE
Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
1 year ago

Daft article. The author should stay at home.

I doubt it was anything to do with EOTHO but if a dumb opinion (backed by dubious data ) is touted for long enough, it is what people and journalists like to believe.

It could be the beginning of the flu cycle!? Ever thought of that? People were working as they are now . People were supermarket shopping as they are now, they were going about their lives. So unless seasons don’t change and we have perpetual summer and our endemic health improves ( low obesity , low dependence on medication, better health quality for which need to take personal responsibility ) , we will find one disease or the other will get us . Today we fear Covid , tomorrow there will be a new germ?

The author doesn’t realise it’s not Covid that is dangerous per se , it’s just that it creates extra pressure on the lungs which can be avoided if you are not obese , and if you keep your lungs in good shape & take plenty of vit D as we are all a bit short of it in the winter.

The solutions to most problems are quite simple but when it comes time to exercise those solutions, we are lazy and look to complicate matters and push our responsibility on to others to solve.

bob alob
bob alob
1 year ago

Unfortunately not everyone has the luxury of earning a living sat at home in front of a computer screen, all those mainly young people who work in this industry will not have the authors resources and no doubt struggled badly during the lockdown, he can stay at home when the restrictions are lifted if he likes, along with everyone else who is still willing to live in fear of the virus but most of us will be out and about earning a living and socializing as we did before, another eat out to help out will help a lot of businesses get back on their feet and encourage the rest of us to get back into normality.

KM
KM
1 year ago

I can understand the economic nature of the arguments against a support scheme like EOTHO.
But if the new line against people doing what people do (and should do) i.e. socializing and living their lives freely has now mutated (pun intended) from ‘protect the NHS stay at home’ to ‘protect us from Covid mutations, stay away and stay at home, vaccines and all’, then God protect us all from the hygienic Saudi Arabia envisaged by some…

Last edited 1 year ago by KM
Frank Raschke
Frank Raschke
1 year ago

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.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
1 year ago

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.

Last edited 1 year ago by Laura Creighton
Paul Wright
Paul Wright
1 year ago

I think Tom C’s point with the “all the gaps between tables and ostentatiously empty place-settings” is that 2 m distances aren’t enough while you’re indoors. I don’t think your study contradicts that, because it’s possible that the particles containing the virus got a reasonable distance before falling to the ground or evaporating before the next shift came in for lunch. EOTHO is not asking us to have dinner at a different time from everyone else, after all.
The research I’ve read suggests outdoor spread is very tricky unless you’re right next to someone for an extended period. If we didn’t see an uptick from the undesirables crammed onto Bournemouth Beach, can’t be that easy, can it? Whereas gaps between tables in poor ventilated rooms are theatre: We Need to Talk About Ventilation in The Atlantic has a summary of the evidence. Give them grants for HEPA filters and awnings rather than subsidising the meals.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Wright

In fairness whilst outside transmission is apparently very unlikey/rare, Bournemouth Beach wasn’t that crammed – the famous photos generally used tricks to make it look far worse. Making miles of beach look like 100 yards. There’s some good articles on it, and other similar photos dissected – interesting tricks and used sadly by most of the press.

Andy Ballard
Andy Ballard
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Wright

That seems to be an argument that restaurants shouldn’t be allowed to open (indoors) at all though, rather than criticism of EOTHO.

Stephen Collins
Stephen Collins
1 year ago

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*.

Ian Standingford
Ian Standingford
1 year ago

Why do governments find it so difficult to do…….absolutely nothing?

Kathy Prendergast
Kathy Prendergast
1 year ago

Maybe abusing their power to trample on our rights makes their jobs more interesting.

Andy Ballard
Andy Ballard
1 year ago

Fair enough to criticise the economics of the scheme, but I really don’t think its fair to blame the spread of the virus specifically on Sunak, even if it could be linked to the scheme. The analysis which suggested this looks very dubious to me, but regardless surely it was more a decision of whether restaurants were allowed to open at all or not. Once the decision to allow them to open is made by government with input by SAGE, then all the scheme has done is incentivise them to be used (up to the safely-approved capacity). So again now the criticism must be about whether you think restaurants (and other general lockdown easing) should be allowed at all rather than blaming the scheme for helping people to use facilities which have been deemed safe.

Kathy Prendergast
Kathy Prendergast
1 year ago
Reply to  Andy Ballard

Why can’t we all just get it into our thick heads that resuming normal life as it was lived way back in 2019 will not make this virus kill any more people than it’s already killing, especially not now with mass vaccination programs underway?
This is a virus that clearly targets the very elderly and the very immuno-compromised, which is why all the deadly outbreaks occurred in places where there are many of these people, close to one another. So-called “asymptomatic transmission” is clearly no more likely with this virus than it is for any other virus (and studies have already proven that). I was never once advised to stay away from my elderly mother during flu seasons in the past, even if I was feeling fine.
If any of this nonsense really made a positive difference, we would have seen massively higher levels of cases in the places – eg., Florida in the US, or Sweden – that had few to no lockdown measures or widespread mask-wearing throughout 2020.
Enough, already. Just stop this.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kathy Prendergast
Matthew Bottomley
Matthew Bottomley
1 year ago

If only we did in reality follow the science and the data – and follow it to it’s conclusion. It seems that far too many people (even those who should know better) jump on small windows/series of data that tie into personal belief systems to promote these as fact when the reality is they remain unsubstantiated opinion.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
1 year ago

Increasingly, it seems that science is the opposite of joy.