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11 August 2020

Is the Eat Out to Help Out scheme encouraging unhealthy eating?

A New Statesman analysis estimates at least 10,667 of the restaurants currently registered are fast food outlets.   

By Nicu Calcea

When pubs, restaurants and cafes reopened on 4 July, data showed that most Britons were still reluctant to leave their homes even as authorities assured them it was safe to do so.

In order to encourage punters back through the doors, Chancellor Rishi Sunak launched the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which offers diners 50 per cent off food and non-alcoholic drinks (up to £10 per person) at restaurants from Monday to Wednesday throughout August.

And it seems to have worked – the latest figures from restaurant booking platform OpenTable show the number of reservations and walk-ins at British restaurants on 3 August, the first day of the scheme, jumped to levels higher than last year for the first time since the beginning of March. Since then the level has continued to rise.

British restaurant reservations are picking back up

Restaurant bookings and walk-ins compared to the same day of the same week in 2019
British restaurant reservations are picking back up
Source: OpenTable

The UK is now registering a faster recovery – at least when it comes to restaurants and pubs – than most other countries in the OpenTable tracker.

But some critics are now claiming that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme may be encouraging unhealthy eating, the very thing Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the government would fight just a week before the start of the scheme.

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Johnson’s new obesity campaign strategy is meant to help people lose weight to provide better protection against Covid-19 by reducing unhealthy food advertising and ending “buy one, get one free” promotions, among other measures.

A Public Health England report found the risk of a positive Covid-19 test, hospitalisation, advanced levels of treatment and death “increase progressively with increasing BMI above the healthy weight range”.

Yet the Eat Out to Help Out scheme’s £10 discount limit may be disproportionately pushing Brits towards cheaper establishments, many of which serve unhealthier food.

A Big Mac at McDonald’s now costs just £2.30, for example, with the government footing the rest of the bill. Chains such as KFC, Burger King, Pizza Express and Nando’s were among the first to sign up for the scheme.

A New Statesman analysis estimates at least 10,667 of the restaurants currently registered for Eat Out to Help Out are fast food establishments.

More than half of them – 5,600 restaurants – are part of chains, with the remaining 5,067 made up of smaller, independent eateries.

The figures above only include restaurants that are primarily focused on serving fast food and do not include pubs or other establishments that may also be serving unhealthy food.

And while many restaurants have taken steps to make dining in safer, there are no safety requirements that they need to follow to participate in the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

Our analysis reveals at least 2,238 of the restaurants currently eligible for the scheme have received a hygiene rating of zero, one or two in England, Wales and Northern Ireland or an “Improvement Required” in Scotland, indicating urgent, major or some improvement is required.

These ratings cover a series of criteria, including how food is handled as well as the cleanliness, layout and ventilation of the restaurant itself.

Even as the coronavirus pandemic all but put a stop to food safety inspections during the lockdown, at least 137 restaurants participating in the Eat Out to Help Out scheme received a 0-2 rating since 5 March, when the UK officially passed 100 Covid-19 cases and had its first coronavirus-related death.

How we’ve worked out the numbers

It’s important to note that the figures above are estimates, and the number of fast food establishments participating in the government’s scheme is likely even higher.

The government provides a list of all participating establishments except for chains with 25 or more locations. We matched the names of these establishments to those in the Food Standards Agency’s food hygiene ratings database.

However, due to differences in how restaurant names were recorded in each dataset, we couldn’t do an automatic perfect match for all of the establishments. We’ve only included matches with a fairly high degree of certainty, although there may be a very small amount of mismatched names.

Some restaurants may have also closed or changed their name since their last food safety inspection.

There is also no register of fast food restaurants freely available. To identify fast food establishments, we’ve included all that are categorised as “takeaway/sandwich” in the Food Standards Agency’s database as well as restaurants with words such as “burger”, “kebab” or “pizza” in their name.

The list of Eat Out to Help Out participating restaurants provided by the government does not include chains with 25 or more locations, so we’ve also added those in by name.

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