A damning new paper has claimed the Government's 'Eat-Out-To-Help-Out' scheme triggered thousands of extra Covid cases. The GBP850 million subsidised meals initiative was intended to help the hard-hit hospitality sector gets back on its feet following last year's first Covid-19 lockdown. But a new Economic Journal report indicates that the scheme actually "accelerated" a second wave of Covid cases by increasing community transmission of the virus.
The findings suggest Eat-Out-To-Help-Out (EOHO) may have been responsible for around 11 per cent of all new detected Covid-19 clusters in the UK emerging during August and early September last year. The scheme directly subsidised the cost of food and non-alcoholic drinks by up to 50 per cent across participating restaurants nationwide for meals served on all Mondays to Wednesdays from August 3 to August 31 last year. The discount was capped at a maximum of GBP10 per person, but there was no limit on how often people could benefit.
Figures suggest that the government subsidised 160 million meals at a cost to the taxpayer of GBP849 million. Restaurant visits increased drastically on Mondays to Wednesdays, which usually see less trade. Official government statistics suggest that more than 59,000 businesses have registered for the scheme.
Researchers found that the programme did have a "notable" temporary impact on restaurant visits when comparing year-on-year changes from the booking service OpenTable. During days that the scheme was available, restaurant visits increased between 10 and 200 per cent. But the data also suggests that the scheme may have shifted restaurant visits from the weekend to weekdays on which the discount was available and that the increased number of restaurant visits was temporary.
Study co-author Professor Thiemo Fetzer, of Warwick University, said: "Areas with higher participation in the Eat-Out-To-Help-Out scheme saw both a notable increase in new Covid-19 infection clusters within a week of the scheme starting, and a deceleration in infections within two weeks of the programme ending. "Areas that had notable rainfall during the prime lunch and dinner hours on days the scheme was active, making customers less likely to visit restaurants and take advantage of the subsidised meals, had a lower infection rate. "The empirical estimates suggest that the subsidised restaurant meal scheme may be responsible for around 11 per cent of all new detected Covid-19 clusters emerging during August and into early September in the United Kingdom."
He continued: "The figures suggest that the EOHO scheme may have caused between between 4,798 and 6,643 symptomatic infections or 7,759 and 21,824 overall infections, including asymptomatic cases directly. "This estimate is unlikely to capture the full pandemic impact of the EOHO scheme as this will spread well beyond calendar weeks 32 to 36. The estimates are unlikely to capture the full chain of onward infections."
Prof Fetzer added: "The most prominent point of divergence between the UK's fiscal response and that of other countries was a large-scale demand-inducing measure targeted at the restaurant sector. "A total of GBP850 million was spent to subsidise the cost of eating out by up to 50 per cent in the month of August. This came at a time when epidemiological studies suggested that restaurant dining may be a particularly risky setting.
"This paper shows that the Eat-Out-To-Help-Out scheme, hailed as a boon for the ailing sector, causally increased Covid-19 community transmission. "By subsidising an economic activity associated with negative health externalities, the estimates suggest that the scheme may have been responsible for between eight per cent and 17 per cent of all newly detected COVID-19 infections - and likely many more non-detected asymptomatic infections - in late summer. "This highlights the fact that fiscal responses aimed to cushion the economic fallout from Covid-19 have to pay particular attention to epidemiological risks as, otherwise, they may significantly worsen the pandemic progression and undermine any short-term economic benefits."
For more stories from where you live, visit InYourArea.