The Eat Out to Help Out scheme is a recurring theme in the Covid Inquiry. A witness statement from Rishi Sunak was shown to the inquiry on Monday.
I don’t recall any concerns about the scheme being expressed during ministerial discussions, including those attended by Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Whitty and then-Chief Scientific Officer Sir Patrick Vallance.
Patrick Vallance responded: “We didn’t see it before it was announced, and I think others in the Cabinet Office also said they didn’t see it before it was formulated as policy. So we weren’t involved in the run-up to it.”
He added: “I think it would have been very obvious to anyone that this inevitably would cause an increase in transmission risk, and I think that would have been known by ministers.”
It’s not evident to us, so we thought we’d look at the evidence – something the inquiry isn’t too keen on.
Several approaches can be taken to look at the issue. First, we examine the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out statistics and geographic breakdown commentary.
It follows that the areas with the most participating outlets would have the most infections. One example is the South West, which claimed 11 million meals, nearly as many as the total for the South East or the North West. Yet cases kept falling until mid-Sep in the South West.
Cornwall (see the dark blue at the bottom left of the U.K. map) became the centre of the U.K.’s holiday destination as so many couldn’t leave the country. However, Vallance would have us believe that Cornwall, the Scottish Highlands and other scattered areas were the highest risk.
As it doesn’t fit the narrative, let’s also look instead at cases in Northern Europe – the answer might be that while U.K. cases were going through the roof in 2020, European cases may have flatlined or disappeared due to the lack of an eat-out scheme. As the data show, it’s not that straightforward.
If, as Vallance says, the scheme increased transmission risk, we would see a rise in cases within a week of the scheme starting in England. The modelling told us that some 80% of the population was susceptible and had no seasonal effect. Yet, it’s a little hard to spot.
You’d expect a dramatic rise in cases in August 2020 once the scheme came into force. So, we’ve focused on the surrounding months to show it had little effect until schools returned.
Writing in the Spectator, Michael Simmons asks whether the Eat Out to Help Out was behind the second wave? He says: “For the vast majority of August (when the scheme ran)… Covid cases were shrinking. Serious growth then only restarts in September and October.” Simmons also points out that in the “ONS’s infection survey there’s no sign of a great increase in Covid cases until the months after the scheme finished”.
Vallance’s assessment of the transmission risk also makes the same mistake the modellers make – it assumes we would have stayed home instead of going out. Yet what else would we have done in the absence of the scheme? Some of us would have still gone out to eat, some to the pub, and we would have inferred the same transmission risk.
We are at odds with the cost of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme – £849 million – and the level of fraud: the Public Accounts Committee estimated the scheme fraud losses at £71 million, almost 8.5% – suggesting one in every 12 meals claimed never existed and were never eaten.
It is concerning that the inquiry allows this evidence-free narrative to go unchallenged. It isn’t asking the critical questions about whether certain assumptions are grounded in evidence or just an adviser’s hunch. The inquiry’s continuing interest in political assassinations means it does not know what the evidence and the data show about the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme and, notably, how much it impacted the risk of infection.
Dr. Carl Heneghan is the Oxford Professor of Evidence Based Medicine and Dr. Tom Jefferson is an epidemiologist based in Rome who works with Professor Heneghan on the Cochrane Collaboration. This article was first published on their Substack, Trust The Evidence, which you can subscribe to here.