Only when I sat down at my favourite Italian restaurant in Leeds did it occur to me I was about to enjoy a bowl of pasta with the compliments of coronavirus.
The government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, ostensibly the brainchild of chancellor Rishi Sunak but more than likely dreamed up by Boris Johnson’s sloganeering consigliere Dominic Cummings, is aimed at saving the near-moribund hospitality sector. So we made a reservation for the first night of the initiative, which cuts food bills by 50 per cent or a maximum of £10 a head on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays till the end of the month. By doing so we were supporting an independently owned restaurant we have often chosen for birthday meals.
Our two pasta dishes and side salads qualified for the maximum £20 discount. Not having been furloughed or received a grant from the coronavirus self-employment income support scheme, that will in all likelihood be my share of the £300 billion the pandemic is predicted to cost the UK Treasury this financial year. An estimated 72,000 places are taking part in the scheme at a cost of £500 million to protect the jobs of 1.8 million employees.
While I still feel guilty about dining out on the taxpayer, on the plus side the restaurant was packed – or as much as it could be after removing about one-third of its tables to comply with social distancing curbs. It would normally be quiet on a Monday night in August, being located in the overwhelmingly student residential area of Headingley, so here at least I think the scheme’s objective probably hit the bullseye.
But some aspects of it may not have been so well thought through. The one that has been ridiculed the most is the inclusion of fast-food chains at the very same time the government is declaring war on Britain’s growing obesity problem. Given that the discount is entirely the result of a national health emergency it’s surely contradictory that public health considerations were not factored into the initiative.
The internet is currently brimming with ingenious ways of using the scheme to enjoy three meals a day for less than a fiver, but the downside is that most of them involve eating burgers, which are notorious for their saturated fat and salt content. It’s as though the government has decided to sponsor a two-for-one burger meal deal. What happened to protecting the NHS from surges in demand?
My biggest problem with the scheme is that while it will undoubtedly help to save jobs in the catering industry, there is no scheme to partner it that helps those for whom restaurants and cafés are simply out of reach. For them Eat Out to Help Out is a cruel joke as they struggle with food poverty.
According to the Trussell Trust, which runs a network of over 1,200 food banks in the UK, demand for emergency food parcels shot up by almost 100 per cent following the lockdown, while the World Bank reports that nearly two million UK residents are under-nourished and as many as one in six parents are going without food in order to feed their children.
I’d like to propose a government initiative that helps them. Since Cummings is fond of slogans he could call it Help Them Out to Eat In.