UK

Eat Out to Help Out protected workers from ‘devastating’ job losses – Sunak

Rishi Sunak defended the Eat Out to Help Out scheme (Jeff J Mitchell/PA)
Rishi Sunak defended the Eat Out to Help Out scheme (Jeff J Mitchell/PA) Rishi Sunak defended the Eat Out to Help Out scheme (Jeff J Mitchell/PA)

The Eat Out to Help Out discount hospitality scheme helped protect workers from the “devastating consequences” of job losses, Rishi Sunak has told the Covid inquiry.

The scheme was introduced by the Prime Minister, when he was chancellor during the pandemic, in summer 2020, in a bid to support the hard-hit hospitality sector as the UK emerged from coronavirus restrictions imposed during the first lockdown.

The policy has been heavily scrutinised by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, with questions about whether scientists were consulted about the plan and whether it contributed to the spread of infection.

Giving evidence to the inquiry on Monday, Mr Sunak said he still believed Eat Out to Help Out had been the “right thing to do to protect” what he said were “millions” of jobs held by “particularly vulnerable people”.

He said: “All the data, all the evidence, all the polling, all the input from those companies suggested that unless we did something, many of those jobs would have been at risk with devastating consequences for those people and their families.”

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Covid-19 pandemic inquiry Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was chancellor during the pandemic (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

The plan formed part of Mr Sunak’s summer economic update on July 8 2020, and provided 50% off the cost of food and/or non-alcoholic drinks.

The announcement blindsided both key scientific advisers and Mr Sunak’s then cabinet colleagues, including former health secretary Matt Hancock, who said the first they knew of it was when it was made public.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, is said to have privately referred to the scheme to boost the restaurant industry as “eat out to help out the virus”.

Sir Patrick Vallance, who was chief scientific adviser, previously told the inquiry the scheme was “highly likely” to have fuelled deaths.

Questioned by lead counsel Hugo Keith KC about the scheme, Mr Sunak said such concerns were not raised with him despite there being a one month gap between it being announced and the discount coming into effect.

He said there had been “ample opportunity” for people to raise concerns with him or then prime minister Boris Johnson during that period.

Mr Sunak said the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was a “micro policy” within the overall reopening plan after the first lockdown, with indoor hospitality “already” open again as part of the Government’s May plan to lift restrictions.

The Prime Minister said: “Eat Out to Help Out only operated within that context.

“And indeed there were a significant range of other NPIs (non-pharmaceutical interventions) that were in place, including social distancing, Covid secure guidance, table service, contactless ordering, one-way systems, all of which had been put in place.”