KUMAR: 'Eat Out to Help Out' policy failed United Kingdom

The measure was intended to stimulate economic growth in a time of crisis, but it may be to blame for an uptick in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases.
Photo by PikistThe measure was intended to stimulate economic growth in a time of crisis, but it may be to blame for an uptick in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases.

When Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the “Eat Out to Help Out” government-backed initiative back in early August, it was an unprecedented approach to tackling one of the worst recessions in British history caused by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

But recently, it has been reported that the United Kingdom (UK) has seen its highest number of daily cases since the start of the summer, pushing the virus reproduction rate over one, which places the country at risk of an exponential rise in infections. 

In response to the national spike, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to mandate a limit on gatherings above six people, the first time such a rule had been enforced since lockdown rules had been eased. This is yet another gaffe from the conservative government, which is undoubtedly a major setback in Britain’s battle against the pandemic, with growing evidence suggesting that “Eat Out to Help Out” may be partly responsible for driving the infection rate in the country. 

The “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme was developed to give a much-needed boost to the UK's restaurant industry, which suffered an immense blow when the national lockdown came into effect in March. 

This initiative gave members of the public an opportunity to claim a 50 percent discount off of dine-in meals at up to £10 (approximately $13) per head excluding alcoholic beverages. The discount could only be claimed from Monday to Wednesday at participating restaurants which you could look up on the UK government's official website. 

No vouchers were required to claim the discount since the establishments would be reimbursed by the government after making a claim. Sunak, who was the brain child behind the scheme, said the impetus behind this novel course of action was to encourage people to leave their homes more often so the UK's contracting economy could begin to recover. 

He brushed off the potential risks by claiming that dining out was now safe: "We wouldn’t have lifted the restrictions if we didn’t think we could do so safely.” “Eat Out to Help Out” was received enthusiastically by the British public. It was used more than 64 million times in the first three weeks of August and protected approximately 2 million jobs in the hospitality sector, according to BBC

Despite the immense short-term economic benefits, economic experts have criticized the move for driving the recent uptick of cases in the country. For example, Toby Phillips, University of Oxford public policy researcher, said that dining-in activity did not only return to pre-pandemic levels, but also actually exceeded them, as people went out to eat extravagantly during a short time period of one month. 

Thus, the surge in cases is not at all surprising, since the scheme directly contributed to densely packed restaurants and pubs during the month of August, not to mention that such heightened activity was concentrated over the first three days of the week. 

It is a well-known fact that crowds can cause the coronavirus to spread at alarming rates, so it was highly irresponsible of the conservative government to go for an initiative that would discourage the essential practices of social distancing and mask wearing during this pandemic era. 

There are still far too many unknowns about the safety of dining out which has caused many political leaders to exercise caution when reopening restaurants. In the United States, many states, such as New York, have not resumed indoor dining services, while other states have capped the indoor capacity at which such businesses can operate. 

The “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, albeit its good intentions, is nothing more than a quick fix to COVID-19 recession in the UK, akin to arbitrarily placing a plaster on a complicated, nuanced problem. The rush to return to normalcy that the government is strongly in favor of will do far more harm before it does any good, which is clearly evident from the recent surge of case in the UK. 

The British government should instead focus on developing sustainable economic policies which can prepare the economy adapt to the unique circumstances of the current era for the long haul, instead of quick misguided solutions which only serve to exacerbate the detrimental effects of the pandemic. 

We all want to go back to normalcy at some point, but simply put, it may not just be the right time yet, and the British government should be very much aware of that.

Shubhrant Kumar is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science. His column, "The Transatlantic Perspective," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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