On 3 March, Rishi Sunak will decide whether some restaurants, pubs, cafes, and bars survive until spring. The Budget, in which the chancellor is expected to extend the furlough scheme, which supports jobs; the business rates holiday, which saves money; and the cut on VAT, which is a lifeline for restaurants when they are actually open, is the next stage of the plan for reopening after coronavirus lockdown. He will also decide what happens when they reopen on 12 April for outdoor dining and 17 May for indoor dining.
With dates come expectations; with expectations come clamour; and with clamour comes memory of the scheme Sunak touted to get restaurants back on their feet in summer 2020: Eat Out to Help Out. Reports in the Daily Mail suggest that the discount scheme could return, while restaurant accounting firm Viewpoint includes its resurrection in a list of recently published recommendations from its London clients, advocating specifically for “another Eat Out to Help Out style scheme to drive business.”
Those dates are not set in stone, however much prime minister Boris Johnson may tout his reopening roadmap as “cautious but irreversible.” But the Treasury counts the scheme as an unqualified success, so it’s not hard to see why Sunak may be reconsidering it in the interim. It cost £522 million, with over 100 million meals claimed through August 2020 and many restaurants choosing to extend it into September and October on their own money. It brought in revenue that restaurants badly needed after the first lockdown, when the idea of being locked down at all was new, and meal kits and new approaches to restaurant delivery were both immature and infrequent, in comparison to where they are now. The scheme was fundamentally designed to boost customer confidence in going back to restaurants, which had waned significantly in a market that hadn’t yet built viable alternatives, while taking workers off furlough, which did not — and still does not — include tips.
Its other costs, however, are more troubling. Despite efforts to discredit it, a significant study tied the scheme to a rise in coronavirus cases. Data used against that study — and more widely to discredit the idea that hospitality contributes to COVID-19 transmission — both predates the arrival of new, more transmissible variants from both Kent and South Africa, and has been debunked for focussing too narrowly on transmission in restaurants, pubs, cafes, and bars, with the virus’ incubation period meaning that asymptomatic spread in particular can be easily misattributed.
The sheer volume of people visiting restaurants caused problems for workers, from bill misunderstandings to abusive customers, who, after a lockdown of little to no revenue, had little choice but to take the bills and move on. Unions like the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union (BFAWU) are still fighting for liveable sick pay and minimum wages for workers staffing the restaurants that would be flooded by customers eating discounted food. Today, as talk of its return bubbles up, the internet has been quick to remind people of the scheme’s pitfalls. A search for “Eat Out to Help Out” returns testimony after testimony after testimony of either poor working conditions from 2020 or scepticism about the return of a policy which the government used to encourage people to return to “normal life,” before blaming people returning to “normal life” on the rise in cases that followed in autumn and ensuing pressures on testing services.
Eat Out to Help Out also did nothing for so-called “wet-led” pubs that either don’t serve food at all or have a minimal menu, with the discount not redeemable against alcoholic drinks. Sunak has in fact already cooled the jets of EOTHO Two rumours, but that was for a winter scheme designed to recoup lost December trade.
Ultimately, Eat Out to Help Out was designed as a policy for the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, not the coronavirus pandemic in 2021. This reopening is happening in the context of a vaccine roll-out; if government plans run as they should — a big “if,” after the past year — by the time restaurants open for outdoor dining, every adult over 50 and / or with underlying health conditions should have been offered a vaccine. The case for “consumer confidence” is considerably weaker in this context; the case for putting workers at additional risk and stress for its benefit is inadmissible; and the sugar rush of a reopening discount goes against the mantra that this time what restaurants need is to reopen, and stay open. Meal kits, extended delivery services, and other contingencies — however temporary, however contrary to the experience of going to a restaurant — are more robust. That doesn’t mean that restaurants don’t need more financial support; a solution on rent; the expected extensions to tax relief and job preservation that will put some ground under their feet come spring.
But to spend another £500 million — £849 million, before the money it made made back in tax — on a scheme that could temporarily overwhelm businesses in the absence of more meaningful support programmes, delivered sooner, would look like more clout-chasing from Brand Rishi. Eat Out to Help Out, whether it comes back or not, is unlikely to make or break any restaurant’s future, but may yet come to define Sunak’s.