The government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme drove up Covid-19 infections while offering only short-lived economic benefits, a study suggests.
Rhys Blakely, Science Correspondent www.thetimes.co.uk
The research concludes that the £500 million scheme, championed by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, led to a significant rise in new cases in August and early September, contributing to the pandemic’s second wave.
The scheme “may have indirect economic and public health costs that vastly outstrip its short-term economic benefits”, a paper from the economics department of Warwick University says.
The Eat Out to Help Out initiative was designed to boost the economy after the national lockdown. It allowed pubs and restaurants to offer heavily discounted meals on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August.
The research found that areas with higher take-up of the scheme saw an increase in new virus infection clusters within a week of it starting. There was a deceleration in new infections within a fortnight of it ending.
Between 8 per cent and 17 per cent of new infection clusters that emerged in August and early September could be attributed to Eat Out to Help Out, Dr Thiemo Fetzer, of the University of Warwick, the paper’s lead author, calculated.
As the scheme ended, visits to restaurants declined, indicating, Dr Fetzer said, that its positive economic impact was short-lived. “Eat Out to Help Out may in the end have been a false economy: one that subsidised the spread of the pandemic into autumn and contributed to the start of the second wave,” he said.
He added: “Epidemiologists have long shown that restaurants are high-risk places for infections to take place. Here’s a scheme that encouraged a lot of people to visit restaurants in very concentrated periods of time. Some restaurants were seeing 100 per cent more business compared to usual on these days.”
Epidemiologists and economists had cautioned against the initiative in the summer, he said. “They warned that it would subsidise infections . . . Obviously, there will be deaths linked to the scheme as well — this was perfectly predictable.”
He added: “Alternative policy measures, such as extending the furlough scheme, increasing statutory sick pay and supporting low-income households through expanding free school meals may well prove to be far more cost-effective than demand-stimulating measures that encourage economic activities which actively cause Covid-19 to spread.”
To demonstrate a causal connection between Eat Out to Help Out and increased infections Dr Fetzer looked at data on rainfall and people’s movements.
He found that higher rainfall around lunch and dinner time during the scheme’s period of operation led to both a drop in visits to restaurants and subsequently lower new infection rates, compared to areas that had good weather.
Rainfall during lunch and dinner hours did not drastically affect time spent in other locations. Dr Fetzer said: “This strongly suggests that the link between Eat Out to Help Out and new Covid-19 infections is causal: when people were not dining out as part of the scheme there were fewer new cases of the virus.”
A Treasury spokesman told Sky News: “We do not recognise these figures . . . Many other European counterparts have experienced an uptick in cases — irrespective of whether similar measures for the hospitality industry have been introduced.”
The total value of meals for which the discount was claimed was about £1 billion. Boris Johnson admitted earlier this month that Eat Out to Help Out may have contributed to a rise in Covid cases. “In so far as that scheme may have helped to spread the virus then obviously we need to counteract that with the discipline and the measures that we’re proposing,” he told the BBC.