Was Eat Out to Help Out behind Britain's Covid case spike?

Was Eat Out to Help Out behind Britain’s Covid case spike? ‘Rapid acceleration’ in cases could be linked to hugely popular scheme, Oxford researcher says

  • Oxford University researcher Toby Phillips said the Eat Out to Help Out scheme may have lead to a ‘rapid acceleration’ in coronavirus cases
  • Covid cases are doubling in Britain each week, according to government study
  • The Oxford report claims restaurant attendance soared to ‘near 2019 levels’ 

A ‘rapid acceleration’ in coronavirus cases could be linked to the hugely popular Eat Out to Help Out scheme, an Oxford University researcher has said. 

The scheme, which involved the government fronting 50 per cent of the bill up to £10 per head at participating restaurants from Monday to Wednesday, has been hailed as the hospitality industry’s saviour. 

However, a new report from Oxford University public policy researcher Toby Phillips suggests the scheme may have contributed to a ‘rapid acceleration’ in reported infections in Britain and ‘encouraged extravagant levels of eating out’. 

Today a Government-led study revealed that coronavirus infections are doubling every week and the reproduction ‘R’ rate could be as high as 1.7. 

According to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, this dramatic increase in cases warrants additional measures being rolled out, including the controversial strict new rule of six, which will legally prohibit gatherings of more than six people.        

People eating on restaurant tables placed outside on Old Compton St in Soho, London, as the government initiative Eat Out to Help Out comes to an end, 31 August, 2020

Britain’s Chancellor Rishi Sunak talks as he attends a speed mentoring session for young people in Canary Wharf, London, 2 September, 2020

The seven-day average number of people testing positive for the coronavirus has spiked sharply, rising from 860 on August 10 to more than 2,000 this week

The Oxford report, published in The Conversation, said the introduction of the scheme in early August caused restaurant attendance to soar to ‘near 2019 levels’. 

‘By the start of August, restaurant attendance had already bounced back to near 2019 levels,’ the report reads. 

‘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. 

According to data from OpenTable, restaurant bookings shot up to 216 per cent with over 100million cut-price meals claimed. 

However, after the scheme finished on 31 August, bookings shot back down.   

‘When the scheme ended, things went right back to where they would have been,’ the report reads. 

‘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.’

An ‘uptick’ in the number of coronavirus cases was recorded at exactly the same time the scheme was operating, the report says, adding that this rapid rise has overwhelmed testing capacity and caused some regional lockdowns. 

‘Admittedly, people were also coming back from summer holidays and spending more time with friends,’ the report reads. 

‘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. 

‘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.’

The report then gives policymakers advice for the future. It advises them to avoid pushing for a ‘big bang “back to normal”‘ and to ‘settle in for the long haul’ by establishing recommended behaviours that are safe and in line with the severity of the pandemic.    

The report suggests an extension of subsidised loans, debt support and payroll help to help troubled businesses in the 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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