UK government’s Eat Out to Help Out initiative may have ‘substantially worsened’ outbreak

The programme succeeded in attracting more diners to restaurants and pubs but may be responsible for 8 to 17 per cent of all coronavirus cases in the UK during the summer

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Britain’s Eat Out to Help Out programme, hailed as an economic cure for its ailing restaurant industry, may have substantially worsened the pandemic, research showed.

The government spent £500 million ($647.1m) subsidising the cost of restaurant meals and non-alcoholic drinks by as much as 50 per cent in August, even after evidence showed Covid-19 could easily spread in hospitality settings, a study for the University of Warwick found.

Areas with higher take-up saw a notable increase in new Covid-19 infection clusters within a week of the scheme starting

The programme succeeded in filling tables and getting cash into the hands of hospitality businesses, but may be responsible for 8 per cent to 17 per cent of all coronavirus cases in the UK during the summer.

It may have also led to an increase in asymptomatic infections that may have driven an explosive second wave of the pandemic, said Thiemo Fetzer, an associate professor of economics and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.

“Areas with higher take-up saw both a notable increase in new Covid-19 infection clusters within a week of the scheme starting and again a deceleration in infections within two weeks of the programme ending,” Prof Fetzer wrote in the 52-page paper, which was released on Thursday.

The programme began on August 3 and ended on August 31, two months before Prime Minister Boris Johnson became Europe’s latest leader to retreat from a no-lockdown pledge. On Saturday, he ordered a one-month stay-at-home policy for all of England, beginning November 5, to curb surging Covid-19 cases.

Restaurant visits more than doubled in the last week of Eat Out to Help Out, compared with the same period a year earlier.

Diners were encouraged by a discount of as much as £10 per person to eat at tens of thousands of participating restaurants on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when patronage typically ebbs. Subsidies on almost 100 million meals valued at about £1 billion were claimed during the programme’s four-week period, preliminary data show. Prof Fetzer estimated the cost to taxpayers to be about £500 million.

He found areas that had more participating restaurants had a notable increase in the emergence of infection clusters about a week after the programme started, with patterns of movement corroborated by Google mobility data and aggregate data from restaurant booking sites. Wet weather appeared to deter diners, corresponding with a reduction in Covid-19 incidence.

The UK had a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases at the same time as the programme was operating, said Toby Phillips, a public policy researcher at the University of Oxford.

"This overwhelmed testing capacity and caused some regions to reimpose restrictions," Mr Phillips said in an article for The Conversation in September.

“It’s impossible to know what caused this. People were also coming back from summer holidays and spending more time with friends.”

Still, 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, he said.

“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.”