Did Eating Out really Help Out?
Image: Nick Fewings via Unsplash

Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out To Help Out (EOTHO) scheme was used over 100 million times in the month of August. I, like many others, fuelled by the prospect of snagging a food-related bargain, crammed my calendar with social engagements under the dishonest guise of “doing my bit”. Instagram feeds became saturated with pictures of mid-week banquets accompanied by half-baked captions loosely pertaining to or praising ‘Rishi’s dishes’. 

Dining out was not restricted to the realms of lunch and dinner but became a jentacular event for the gregarious ones among us who dared to bag a hat trick. But alas, our nation’s burning desire to grasp at some semblance of normality by inhaling a discounted plate of ravioli seemed to quell our usually robust moral instincts, rendering us blind to the unjust nature of this populist scheme.  

Consumers like myself who embarked on a restaurant rampage might currently be experiencing the inevitable post-EOTHO blues. After dining out two or three times a week for four weeks in a row at local, ‘no-frills’ establishments, I became dangerously dependent on the early-week high – it was a quick and cheap fix. But now that the scheme is over (or harder to come by), I am confronted with the same financial and unemployment woes I was unwittingly distracting myself from. I have forced myself to go cold-turkey on restaurant-ing and am reluctantly living off beans and sausages that were hastily and foolishly shoved in the freezer on August 3rd, in order to be able to pay my rent this month. As a harsh winter encroaches and the presence of a deadly virus intensifies, the hangover from this scheme is far from optimal for our mental health. 

Waiters were “spat at and physically handled multiple times during EOTHO”

Waiters were hit the hardest: tips went down by a whopping 70% in August due to restaurants going cashless and customers, if they tipped at all, calculating them as a percentage of the discounted price rather than the full price. This is a warped and damaging logic, given that tips constitute up to 35% of a waiter’s overall monthly wage. 

This is not all that waiters had to endure. Although grateful to still be employed, a friend of mine who works in a gastropub, claimed that she was spat at and physically handled multiple times during EOTHO. She blames the customer’s insolent behaviour on a heightened sense of entitlement induced from the thrill of nabbing a bargain, or perhaps rather generously, on a lack of practice at social interaction during lockdown. Patrons were irrationally outraged by delays and menu items running out — hardly unreasonable circumstances considering that most restaurants, not accustomed to being at full capacity Monday to Wednesday, arrange weekly deliveries from suppliers to arrive on a Thursday ahead of a busy weekend service. 

To add to the already unstable environment in which staff were forced to work, extremely high customer turnover and lengthy queues meant that it was near impossible for smaller establishments to adequately implement social distancing, putting waiters at increased risk of catching the virus.  

“Stay in to get thin” promotes a dangerous narrative of extremist diet culture.

Calamitously timed with the launch of Boris’s nationwide anti-obesity campaign, the EOTHO scheme provided the nation with an incentive to go toward fast-food chains offering less nutritious food at recklessly low prices. With food this cheap and summer holiday mode activated, our lockdown health kick came to an abrupt halt and Couch To 5K was swiftly deleted to make space for the Franco Manca app. 

While ‘must end soon!’ discount expiry dates are economically effective at prompting expenditure, in the case of EOTHO, it encourages a culture of greed or binging; which, placed side by side with the government’s ‘Better Health’ obesity strategy and September’s trending buzzwords ‘Stay In To Get Thin,’ promotes a dangerous narrative of extremist diet culture.

EOTHO is also a scheme that directly privileges the already-privileged middle and upper classes, while shamelessly exonerating low-income households who have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and for whom stretching tight budgets for a meal out is simply not feasible. By nature of being ‘eat-in’ only, the scheme fails to consider the needs of those for whom frequenting inaccessible or rowdy restaurants is not possible nor desirable thus privileging an able-bodied clientele. But it’s hardly breaking news that the perspectives and lived experiences of underprivileged groups of people are neglected by our government and policy-makers. 

What is most damning about the EOTHO scheme is that while it may have put cash into the hands of struggling independent businesses and boosted consumer confidence in the short-term,  a cost-benefit analysis of its long-term economic efficacy seems to have been neglected. Some restaurants are now facing higher costs due to hiring additional staff to cater for the increased demand, and some argue that the scheme merely shifted trade from weekends to midweek so the overall impact was negligible. 

Public Health England (PHE) said that among people who tested positive for Covid-19 between 10 August and 20 September, eating out was the most commonly reported activity in the two to seven days prior to the onset of symptoms. I can’t help but wonder whether we would be facing fresh lockdown restrictions had ‘Dishy Rishi’ prioritised the safety of the public and spent the EOTHO subsidy on a more robust track and trace system, or ameliorating widespread testing shortages to facilitate a long-term improvement to consumer confidence. 

And finally, of course, it comes at a handsome cost to the taxpayer of £522 million (despite the frighteningly common misconception that “dinner’s on Rishi”) who has been disproportionately blamed for the impending second wave. As the memory of August’s bao bun bender fades from our consciousness and the infection rate rises, diners must bear a heavy emotional, and gastric, burden.

FROM THE WRITER: If you’ve made a big saving this August, consider donating savings earned from EOTHO to your local food bank or to the Trussell Trust foundation, directly benefiting those who have struggled the most during this pandemic.