Has eating out actually helped out?

Cafes and restaurants saw an unprecedented number of visitors this week, as customers all over the nation took advantage of the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme in its final few days.

The scheme, designed to give the economy a much-needed boost, gives customers up to 50% in participating restaurants, with the government subsidising meals and reimbursing the discount cost to businesses. And it has been hugely effective: more than 64 million meals were bought in the scheme’s first and restaurants bookings are 48 per cent higher compared with August 2019. But has eating out really helped out?

Just over a week after the scheme was announced, the UK Government rolled out its new obesity strategy, alongside the ‘Better Health’ campaign. The strategy outlined a range of interventions designed to help combat obesity.  Amongst the measures being introduced is a ban on “buy one, get one free” promotions on junk food. Yet days later, fast food giants such KFC, Subway and Pizza Hut signed up to the government’s “buy one, get one free” eat out to help out scheme, leading many to criticise the government’s conflicting messaging.

Obesity remains one of the UK’s worst public health issues. With 63% of adults in England either obese or overweight, the obesity epidemic costs the NHS around £6bn a year. Over 40 serious health conditions are linked to obesity, ranging from type 2 diabetes to cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, liver disease, obstructive sleep apnoea and an increased risk of cancer. And thanks to the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme though, diners could nab themselves a McDonalds hamburger for less than 50p.

Amidst the delight of half-price food and fine dining, it is easy to forget who will really pay the price for our discounted dinners. Officials have estimated that the scheme will cost the taxpayer more than £500m.  With the government’s national debt increasing at a rate of £5,170 per second – this week reaching £2trillion for the first time ever – many will worry about how exactly heavy spending to support the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic will be balanced out in years to come.

Of course, the scheme has brought huge benefits, such as protecting jobs, stimulating local businesses and economies, and offering a much-needed break for many suffering from isolation and loneliness in their homes. Perhaps most importantly, Britain’s economic recovery from Covid-19 gathered pace in the past month, fuelled by consumer spending. Eating out truly has helped out in many ways, but the drawbacks of the scheme cannot be ignored.

The good news for bargain hunters: a number of restaurants reporting soaring trade since the campaign began have decided to foot the discount themselves throughout September. But as we become accustomed to discounts, do we lower the ceiling of how much we’re willing to pay?

The Whitehouse team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at chris.whitehouse@whitehousecomms.com.