For a nation of pub-lovers, Britain is proving hard to coax out of lockdown and back to the bar. Rishi Sunak’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, unveiled yesterday, is another attempt to tempt customers into restaurants, cafes and pubs.
The programme will give diners 50 per cent off on meals and non-alcoholic drinks (up to £10 per head) at restaurants from Monday to Wednesday throughout August.
“I know people are cautious about going out, but we wouldn’t have lifted the restrictions if we didn’t think we could do so, safely,” said the Chancellor.
Sunak is quite right about one thing: the UK isn’t just proving cautious about the lockdown ease, but far more cautious than the citizens of other countries. Pubs and restaurants in the UK reopened on 3 July, after 15 weeks of inactivity. However, people didn’t flock back to the bar in the manner the government had hoped.
Exclusive polling for the New Statesman by polling firm Redfield & Wilton Strategies reveals that 15 per cent of respondents visited a pub this past weekend, with nearly two-thirds of them (64 per cent) saying they had felt safe doing so while a third (34 per cent) had not.
However, only slightly over one in three (37 per cent) say they will go to the pub again in July, although the responses were collected before the Chancellor’s announcement. Figures from restaurant booking platform OpenTable confirm that Brits weren’t too keen on spending an evening at the pub: reservations and walk-ins were still at only 39.1 per cent of last year’s levels this Sunday – the highest figure since restaurants were closed.
By comparison, when pubs reopened in Ireland on 29 June, they recorded almost as many reservations as before the lockdown, with the number of bookings last Sunday exceeding the level recorded last year.
The chart below shows that “Super Saturday” (4 July) was largely a flop in the UK, with fewer people returning to restaurants compared to diners in Australia, Germany or Ireland.
UK restaurants have failed to return to pre-Covid 19 levels
Restaurant bookings and walk-ins compared to the same day of the same week in 2019
The data suggests that, despite the government assuring us that it is now safe to gather in public places, most Brits are still reluctant to do so.
Alternative figures from Apple, which estimates the amount of pedestrian activity based on data from users of its maps application, confirms the trend.
Despite lockdown easing, pedestrian mobility in the UK is currently among the lowest in the world and yet to return to something resembling pre-lockdown levels. In Europe, only Ireland and Portugal have lower levels of pedestrian mobility.
UK pedestrian mobility remains low
100 per cent represents a baseline of walking direction requests in Apple Maps on 13 January
Brits are also cautious about using public transport. Data from transit app Citymapper, which operates in 41 cities around the world, shows that London, Manchester and Birmingham – the three UK cities served by the app – have the lowest levels of public transport mobility in Europe.
UK cities are still avoiding public transport
The baseline of 1 represents the average number of trips planned in Citymapper between 6 January and 2 February
Why might this be? As a New Statesman investigation found last week, the UK was relatively slow to put lockdown measures in place, taking ten days after its tenth Covid-19 death to cancel public events and close schools – longer than any other major country.
Partly as a result, the UK took far longer than other countries to bring deaths down from peak levels. There were 59 days between the UK recording its highest number of daily deaths and fatalities falling to 20 per cent of this figure. Germany achieved the same in 27 days, France in 34.
Finally, at the time lockdown was eased in the UK, the country was still recording nearly seven deaths per million population per day – again, higher than all other countries.
Given reasonable public awareness of these facts, public trust in the government’s ability to handle the Covid-19 crisis has understandably ebbed away. The British government has one of the lowest domestic approval ratings in the world.
Generous discounts may tempt the public back into pubs and bars – but greater government decisiveness and competency earlier in the crisis might have proved a far cheaper solution.