Did Eat Out to Help Out spread coronavirus? What data says as Rishi Sunak defends scheme
Rishi Sunak has launched a furious defence of his now-notorious Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
The Chancellor insisted he had no regrets over the subsidy that cut the price of more than 100million meals in August.
The scheme, which cost at least £522m, has been accused of helping fuel a second wave of Covid-19 in the UK.
Even Boris Johnson yesterday suggested the incentive “may have helped to spread the virus”.
The PM told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “In so far as that scheme may have helped to spread the virus obviously we need to counteract that and we need to counteract that with the discipline and the measures that we’re proposing.
“But I hope you understand the balance we’re trying to strike.”
But today Mr Sunak said the scheme helped prop-up two million jobs and he had no regrets about paying for it.
Asked if he had any regrets, he told the Sun: “No, no, no, no, definitely not. We had an industry that I care deeply about because of employment. It’s over two million people.”
He also pointed to low cases of second-wave Covid in the South West, claiming that region made the most use of the scheme.
The incident has tugged on long-running claims of a rivalry between the Chancellor and No10. What we don’t know for sure is who is right.
Claims have been circulating for a while now that Eat Out to Help Out spread coronavirus. So what does the official data say? We’ve taken a brief look.
The first thing to say is – we simply don’t know for sure.
People may have done lots of things before they tested positive for coronavirus.
So even if they ate out, it’s difficult to say that’s definitely where they caught the virus – unless of course there’s a major outbreak with a large cluster of cases.
And even if they did catch the virus from a pub or restaurant, what day of the week did it happen? Eat Out to Help Out only ran on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August.
And even if someone was infected in a restaurant on a Monday in August, was it because of the Eat Out scheme? Or would they have been in there anyway?
Buried in weekly Public Health England data is a chart which records what people were doing before they tested positive.
Top of that chart by a country mile in the week to September 27 are two things – “shopping” in first place, then “eating out”.
This doesn’t necessarily mean eating out caused someone to get infected.
For instance, it may be that the type of person more likely to take a small risk of eating out is also more likely to take bigger risks, like hugging and kissing family.
But it does provide some suggestion that eating out in pubs and restaurants may have contributed to the rise in virus.
Unfortunately for armchair statisticians, that table is quite a recent addition to the weekly figures.
It didn’t appear for the final weeks of the Eat Out scheme itself in August.
The only chart available on the subject was one showing the type of contacts people had before testing positive.
In this chart, eating out is included in “leisure/community”, which is a very small proportion of cases.
But this doesn’t help us either – because people may have been eating out with members of their household, or visitors to their household, which rank much higher.
What we do know is Eat Out was a popular scheme. It subsidised more than 100million meals.
In an article on September 10, Toby Phillips, a researcher at the University of Oxford, went further and pointed out restaurants saw a huge rise in takings on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays compared to the year before.
While he accepted no firm link could be proven, he wrote: “There is a loose correlation between uptake of the scheme and new cases in the last weeks of August.
“Again, this isn’t to say that the scheme caused those cases. But it certainly didn’t discourage those people from going out.”
Critics of the 10pm pub curfew seized on data that appeared to show they’re not responsible for infections.
However, the data they used doesn’t prove that, PHE say.
The data showed 3% of confirmed or suspected outbreaks under active investigation by Public Health England were at pubs or restaurants.
22 out of 772 ‘acute respiratory infection’ incidents in the week to September 20 involved hospitality. That compared to 341 in educational settings and 195 in care homes.
In the week to September 27, that rose to 4%. 33 of 782 ‘acute respiratory infection’ incidents involved hospitality. That compared to 296 in education and 143 in care homes.
But PHE officials have told the Mirror this measure is not a reliable indicator of where outbreaks may be happening.
That is because it doesn’t involve all outbreaks.
It only includes those under active investigation by that specific body, and isn’t the full range of problems or infections in the system.
Some pub and restaurant outbreaks aren’t being probed by PHE specifically, because it focuses as a priority on places where an outbreak might still be spreading.
Once someone’s been in and out of a pub, there’s less PHE investigators can do to stop the virus spreading further in that pub – compared to a care home or school, for example.
Adding to this, the PHE investigations aren’t all coronavirus cases. And the number of outbreaks is not necessary relevant to the number of cases. And people might not know they were infected at a restaurant unless multiple cases emerge from that setting.
There will doubtless be academic studies and more research into this than a Mirror article. But for now, these are the main things we can say.
It may be that Eat Out to Help Out spread the virus wildly – and it may be that it made a small contribution, or none at all.
What we do know is the official figures are a long, long way from giving a comprehensive answer – so no doubt the debate will rage on.
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