London Eye: Eating out could be helping the virus out – CNBCTV18

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The signature intervention to save Britain’s economy from the virus was Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme. That move did help the economy, particularly the hospitality business. But signs have been surfacing that it could have done more to help spread the coronavirus.

Britain is now reeling under a second wave of the virus that has picked up sharply since September when the impact of Sunak’s August scheme began to be felt. And this is only the beginning of the second wave that is set to hit Britain hard through difficult winter months.

In the face of growing criticism, Sunak has said he has “no regrets” over the scheme under which the government gave an up to ten-pound discount to diners Mondays to Wednesdays through August. More than 100 million meals were served in Britain under the scheme that has cost the taxpayer close to two-thirds of a billion dollars.

It may have cost lives too, emerging data shows. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has admitted that the scheme may have helped spread the coronavirus and that the government was now working to undo some of the damage it may have caused. “Insofar as that scheme may have helped to spread the virus then obviously we need to counteract that with the discipline and the measures that we’re proposing,” the PM said in an interview to BBC.

Rishi Sunak says his scheme has helped two million jobs. But pubs and restaurants have now emerged as a major multiplier for spreading the virus. A large number of outbreaks have now been identified to have arisen from pubs and restaurants. The scheme brought long queues and packed restaurants all through August.

The official Public Health England led a survey of lifestyle factors that looked at what people diagnosed with coronavirus were doing in the days before they tested positive. Shopping topped the list followed closely by eating out. Just about every suggestion, though, is being challenged by counter-suggestions and varying interpretations of limited data.

Data in one report from Public Health England shows that in July the hospitality sector contributed just 5 percent to the spread, compared to 42 percent in care homes, 20 percent in schools and universities, and 17 percent at workplaces. Two weeks after the end of the eat out scheme, the number of cases stemming from restaurants had tripled. The real spread is feared to be greater because restaurants may have not been listed as a prime cause in overlapping factors.

It’s without a doubt though, that restaurants quite naturally pack a large number of people into limited space for hours together to set up an environment more than averagely conducive to the spread of the virus. And no one is surprised that the first measure introduced now to mark out an area of high restriction is a tightening of rules around pubs and restaurants.

Sacred pubs

But there is still no closure of either, not even in the most intensely affected areas. In Britain the pub is sacred. In the face of recommendations from the government’s own scientists last month to shut down pubs and restaurants for a period, the government did no more than order them to close at 10 pm daily rather than the usual 11 pm. What followed surprised no one: people simply went to the pub a little earlier and downed their beers faster. This then brought a further spillover—a few drinks down, people simply spilled out to party on the streets outside, watered by more liquor from stores around.

The distinction between restaurants and pubs is not very clear because pubs also serve food, and restaurants also serve alcoholic drinks. The government directive in the most affected areas such as Liverpool is that pubs “can only remain open where they operate as if they were a restaurant.” The critical requirement is that pubs must serve “substantial” food with their drinks. What is substantial for one may of course not be substantial for another. The government’s view is that it “expects people to act reasonably”.

All of Britain has seen much flexibility in interpreting what in fact constitutes “reasonable” behaviour. Much of the spread has arisen from behaviour people considered perfectly reasonable.

London Eye is a weekly column by CNBC-TV18’s Sanjay Suri, which gives a peek at business-as-unusual from London and around.

Read his columns here

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