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The Legacy of Eat Out to Help Out: The scheme that promised to save hospitality

On July 8 last year, UK Government Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a new discount scheme offering everyone the chance to eat in cafes, bars and restaurants for half price.
The Eat Out to Help Out scheme was billed as a much-needed shot in the arm of t…

On July 8 last year, UK Government Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a new discount scheme offering everyone the chance to eat in cafes, bars and restaurants for half price. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme was billed as a much-needed shot in the arm of the UK economy which had lost millions since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Grinning as he posed for photos and cheerfully smoothed out stickers on the windows of eateries all over the country.

Mr Sunak said at the time: "This moment is unique. We need to be creative." Read more: The 18 months that have changed Wales forever and how easy it is to forget just what we have all been through

From traders who'd earned almost no income over the past six months, to members of the public fed up with being stuck indoors during lockdown, the plans were equally as welcome. But a year on, opinions have been mixed. Some have hailed Eat Out to Help Out as having saved them from possible closure and encouraging people to come out and spend their money.

Others have questioned its impact on the economy, while research has speculated on whether it may have helped drive the spread of Covid-19 as the winter season approached. We've looked back on the scheme 12 months later and spoken to businesses about how they feel.

'I'd be lying if I said it didn't benefit us, but in hindsight it could have had the adverse effect'

Allan Rohman, manager at the Brunswick Arms pub in Swansea, said while the scheme undoubtedly helped the business out, he felt the way some restaurants ran it could have led to the virus spreading more quickly. "It was busy during the hours we were serving food during that period, but once food had finished, it was quiet," he said.

"I'd be lying if I said it didn't benefit [us] - it did - but possibly in hindsight, it could have had the adverse effect where there were certain establishments, without naming any, ramming people in, so social distancing went out the window. "So health-wise, that could've contributed to further spikes." What do you think of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

The Brunswick Arms in SwanseaThe Brunswick Arms in Swansea

Allan said the pub was "busier the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday" when the scheme was running, but that it "definitely" noticed a drop-off on Fridays and Saturdays. He said this didn't help as the pub, like many hospitality businesses at the time, was already operating on reduced capacity. "Before lockdown we had 28 tables.

When we opened back up we had to reduce it down to 17 tables, so we had ten tables that were put into storage until now. We're in the process of getting those back. "If it had been conducted properly, it would have been [a good idea].

I've got to say, it helped us one heck of a lot, for a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday - almost every table was full for the time that we had it. "But I know I had a lot of customers coming in who'd been to other places and didn't feel safe in them. You've only got to look at the reports from the environmental officers visiting these establishments who got warned and fined for it."

Did Eat Out to Help Out drive up coronavirus infections?

Ever since last August, there has been debate over whether encouraging people to dine out helped the virus spread.

Last October, just over a month after the scheme wrapped up, new research from Dr Thiemo Fetzer, a researcher at the CAGE Research Centre at the University of Warwick, suggested it had caused a rise in Covid-19 infections of between 8% and 17%. Mr Sunak has denied the scheme contributed to a rise in infections, saying in February: "Areas where Eat Out to Help Out was used the most, for example in the south west, were the slowest to see any rise and in fact had very low infection rates. "And almost all other major countries have had rises over the autumn and winter and they didn't have Eat Out to Help Out so I think it's a bit odd to ascribe causality in that way."

In looking at the level of infections in Wales particularly, it is difficult to assess how big a part the scheme played. First of all, it is helpful to look at the infection rate last August, and how that changed. After falling for months during the first lockdown, the rolling seven day average of new coronavirus infections in Wales reached its lowest point between August 10 and August 13, when there were just 3.6 cases for every 100,000 people in Wales a week.

Two weeks later, on August 27, it was double that rate. Ten days later on September 4 it had doubled again, and continued to rise until Wales introduced its first in a series of local lockdowns in Caerphilly on September 8.

A partly-torn Eat Out to Help Out sticker on the window of a restaurantA partly-torn Eat Out to Help Out sticker on the window of a restaurant

Why did this happen? There were a number of significant changes in August which are likely to have contributed to the rise in the rate of infection.

During the first half of the month hospitality businesses, leisure centres and gyms all reopened for the first time since March. People also started going on holiday again both at home and abroad, leading to a number of coronavirus clusters linked to travel. There is no doubt that offering 50% discounts in restaurants brought people out in their droves.

But it can also be argued that after spending five months cooped up indoors, people were going to go to pubs and restaurants again when they reopened anyway. Even if businesses adhered perfectly to all the regulations - adequate spacing of tables and policing of the rules on face masks etc - there may have been a rise in cases regardless, given the simple fact that the virus is much more likely to be transmitted indoors. Add into the mix the hundreds of businesses which were reprimanded for not following the rules properly, and it's hard to see an outcome other than cases and infection rates rising.

The eye-watering costs of the scheme have also been questioned. After Eat Out to Help Out concluded, it was revealed that it had cost the government a whopping GBP522 million thanks to so many businesses having claimed. More recent estimates have been even higher.

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'We had a bit of hassle with it'

Paul Cinderey runs the Paddick Inn pub in Tenby, one of Wales' most popular holiday spots.

He said the pub noticed an uptick in difficult customers on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays after the scheme began. "We were really busy with it, it was a bit of a boost. But we had a bit of hassle with it as well.

"[There were people] going mad, rude, bad-mannered. Everything really. There was quite a few other other places throughout the country that had the same trouble.

"We get a percentage of that anyway, especially now in this area. People don't want to be waiting, and everywhere is short-staffed. "If we'd had something like it [the scheme] this year we just wouldn't have coped with it.

We just can't get enough staff. "We couldn't get them last year, and it's the same this year."

The Paddick Inn, TenbyThe Paddick Inn, Tenby

Last year, WalesOnline reported how the Paddick was considering discontinuing Eat Out to Help Out after being met by "rude" customers eager to take advantage of it. But Paul said he wasn't sure about the claims that the scheme had contributed to the spread of the virus.

"Personally I don't know. I think it depends on the venue at the end of the day. I mean, we've got quite a bit of space here and we'd reduced capacity anyway."

Sam Shangeh is director of Ferdos restaurant on Orchard Street in Swansea. He said the scheme helped keep the business ticking during the toughest times. "My opinion hasn't changed, to be honest.

I thought it was really good to help the businesses. We were shut for a couple of months at the time, and it was really good to bring back diners into the restaurant. I thought it was very helpful and that it was a successful scheme.

"It was really busy from Monday to Wednesday. It was quiet during the weekend, which was normal because people were trying to come during the days of the scheme. It was a good help for the restaurant.

"If we didn't have these people to support us at the time... Many of the businesses, they were struggling. It boosted the takings, we were able to pay our staff, pay our rent.

"People stayed away from restaurants for a couple of months. I thought at the start they would start cooking at home and not coming out to restaurants like they did before. "It was a good way to bring those people back."

Ferdos Restaurant in SwanseaFerdos Restaurant in Swansea

Opinions from traders and scientists have certainly been mixed, but the popularity of the scheme led many to continue it for the month of September after the government had officially ended it.

And some said they would even be open to another similar scheme if it was offered. One business owner in Caldicot which faces possible closure due to lack of funding said recently that Eat Out to Help Out "was excellent for business last year" and that "something like that would help us now." Lara Gulotta's parents Dino and Tracy Gulotta have run Villa Dino Italian restaurant in Newport for 36 years.

She said another discount scheme would provide a boost to businesses as people in Wales enjoy the greatest period of freedom from restrictions since the pandemic began. "We loved the scheme and it encouraged people to dine out, especially earlier in the week when we tended to be a bit quieter," she said. "We actually extended the scheme beyond when the government stopped their initiative just to keep up the momentum of customers waking through the door.

We found that was a success too. "Now that restrictions have been lifted we would like to see something similar put in place." Sam Shangeh from Ferdos in Swansea added: "We could have had the same scheme this year, you know, after the second lockdown I think it would be helpful.

I think the businesses would be interested, would be supportive of it. "Covid has impacted so many businesses, so many have been struggling or closed down. "However people might have different opinions on it, I think it was a good scheme to support businesses at the time."

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