Written by Gavin Wren – Centre for Food Policy & Wren&Co
Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat out to Help Out’ policy initially appears as a PR masterstroke for the chancellor. After months of lockdown and restrictions around gatherings, there are now queues outside restaurants as people take advantage of the scheme, with ailing restaurants fully booked on the days of the week which are traditionally very quiet. Underneath the surge in dining there are deeper effects to consider which touch upon the social values, economic strength and public health of the nation.
Encouraging people to venture out of their homes and socialise appears to be a valuable piece of social policy from the chancellor. Humans thrive on social contact with others, including eating socially. Healthy diets are about more than simply putting the right amount of food in our mouths, they’re about where we do it and who with. Eating with others is viewed as a healthier approach to food, to the point that Brazilian national dietary guidelines, regarded as some of the most progressive in the world, include “eating with company” as one of their key points.
Encouraging social eating is a positive step, yet it brings an inherent risk in the times of Covid-19. Infections reached a low in July and are increasing, casting doubt over the wisdom of encouraging people from different households to gather together indoors at restaurants. 10.5 million customers benefited from the scheme in the first week, suggesting that even with social distancing measures in place, the policy could also present a significant contributory factor in the spread of Covid-19.
The scheme is a huge boost for hospitality and food service industries. Restaurants often assume they’re busy on Friday & Saturday, with Monday to Wednesday being the low point of the week. Rishi’s policy helps businesses and workers claw back money lost during lockdown by filling seats and tip jars on the quietest days. It’s also helping people on low income, unemployed or juggling their finances, by providing half price food at cheaper restaurants.
But is that really helpful? Some people might be enjoying £10 discount at nice restaurants occasionally. Others could be realising it’s now cheaper to go out for fried chicken and chips than cooking at home during the first half of the week. Home cooking skills leaped forwards during lockdown as people turned to the kitchen for leisure and it would be a shame to turn our backs on that renewed interest.
Which brings us round to a highly questionable part of the policy, it’s impact on health.
Eating at restaurants is associated with higher levels of consumption, we like to eat greater quantities of food when out, while restaurant food is generally considered as being higher in fat, salt and sugar. As Covid-19 impact and mortality has been linked with obesity, it’s a risky strategy to encourage people to eat out at restaurants more than usual. There’s also a striking irony in Boris announcing his personal crusade against obesity and a ban on two-for-one offers at the same time as Rishi making Tiramisu half price in my local coffee shop.
For many people, the reality of the scheme is half price food at cheaper restaurants. The deal is eat-in only, although many takeaways organise their planning to provide some dining space, so they don’t fall foul of the takeaway ban near schools. Critics of the policy have suggested a ’take away to help out’ scheme would be far safer from a public health perspective yet encouraging people to stay at home and eat takeaways seems even worse for personal health.
Despite the potential impacts and the very real concern over spreading the virus, it’s worth remembering that the scheme only runs for one month, so it’s not long enough for people to form new habits. It’s unlikely to have long term effects on diet, for many it’s probably just a government-sanctioned free meal after months of strict regulations. Given the uptake of the scheme, perhaps Rishi and Boris could consider a ‘Buy Fruit and Veg to Help Out’ scheme next, to balance the playing field and tie together their policy objectives.