Did Eat Out to Help Out increase Covid? It’s a conclusion the inquiry and lockdown’s cheerleaders seem keen to push. Today they got their wish with Sir Patrick Vallance telling the inquiry it is ‘very difficult to see how it wouldn’t have had an effect on transmission’. Those comments have already been taken out of context with headlines concluding that the link had now been confirmed. But that’s not what the data tells us. Or what Vallance was saying.
Eat Out to Help Out came up because of a written statement from Rishi Sunak that was read out to the inquiry. In it the Prime Minister says, ‘I don’t recall any concerns about the scheme being expressed during ministerial discussions’.
Asked about that claim Sir Patrick 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.’
But was the Eat Out to Help Out scheme really responsible for the second wave, as so many now want to claim? Luckily, we don’t have to rely on the inquiry at all because we can see for ourselves in the published data.
Firstly, let’s look at the weekly hospital admissions ration for England. That’s the number of admissions divided by the number seven days earlier. You can use it as a proxy for the growth rate. If it’s above one then admissions are growing, below one and they’re decreasing.
For the vast majority of August (when the scheme ran) the below graph shows that Covid was shrinking. Serious growth then only restarts in September and October. The few days where growth is above one on the graph are insignificant compared to the huge growth rate of the following months.
Hospital admissions isn't the only data we have to go on. A study by researchers from The London School of Economics found the scheme (which cost £850 million) only increased visitor numbers in the UK by 5 to 6 per cent in its month of operation and crucially that this ‘did not last once the scheme finished’. Look too at the ONS’s infection survey and there’s no sign of a great increase in Covid cases until the months after the scheme finished.
The reality is that short of a vaccine or herd immunity the virus was going to start spreading again – as it did in nearly every other country on earth. There was a second wave everywhere eventually – and those waves happened at near identical speeds too. For us to blame Eat Out to Help Our we’d have to conclude that it sent a wave of Covid roaring over all of Europe too.
So why has this narrative taken hold once more? As The Spectator has pointed out many times now, this inquiry is more about political narratives than establishing facts. ‘Reckless Rishi’, is something that could catch on, so the inquiry looks for confirmation from its witnesses when instead it could integrate the data. This narrative was even trailed in the weekend papers. The inquiries’ lawyers are invited to play to the gallery.
It’s increasingly clear that the inquiry just isn’t equipped to interrogate any data though. Earlier on in his evidence Sir Patrick was asked about Boris Johnson's ‘struggles’ with understanding science. The chair, Baroness Hallett, laughed and interrupted to say ‘I confess to struggling with graphs myself on occasion’.
Well, isn’t that the problem? With no disrespect to the Baroness – a very distinguished court of appeal judge – if the inquiry isn’t capable of examining disputed figures, it’s hardly a surprise that it doesn’t want to either.