The Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which provided diners with half-price meals on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays throughout August, recently came to an end. HMRC revealed that at least £522m has been claimed by more than 130,000 businesses for over 100 million meals. Overall spending at participating restaurants increased by more than a third on the days the scheme operated, reaching as high as twice last year’s levels on certain days.
In Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ latest poll, 46% of respondents indicated that they had taken advantage of the scheme, a rise of 8 per cent from the 38% recorded earlier in August.
The scheme was primarily used by younger respondents; a clear majority (57%) of 18-to-24-year olds took advantage of Eat Out to Help Out compared to just 36% of those over the age of 65.
A majority (69%) of respondents who used the scheme did so more than once. It is notable that the proportion of respondents who had used the scheme more than three times rose from 6% in early August to around a fifth (19%) by the end of the month.
Pubs and restaurants had failed to see the footfall levels they had hoped for when they reopened their doors in July. Amid their financial struggle, many called for greater assistance for the hospitality sector. Now that the scheme has finished, we found that a majority (52%) of respondents approve of the scheme, compared to just 17% who disapprove.
Nevertheless, a greater proportion (61%) of the public supported the scheme in August than at this stage, which may underline that the public are increasingly concerned about the onerous task of recouping the amount spent. While some remain sceptical of the scheme’s value for taxpayers’ money, restaurant owners have lauded the scheme, claiming it has allowed them to avoid making redundancies and also to bring staff off furlough.
A majority of respondents across all gender and age brackets approve of the scheme. Labour voters (51%) were slightly less likely than Conservatives (62%) to support the scheme, perhaps reflecting the concerns of some on the left that the scheme favours middle-class families who can afford to dine out. Nevertheless, it is notable that a key government policy is supported by majorities among the supporters of both major parties.
Although restaurant owners were supportive of the scheme, they are increasingly concerned about their prospects of maintaining strong revenues in the months ahead. Around half (48%) of respondents claimed the experience had made them more likely to eat out during the rest of the year, while just 4% claimed the opposite.
Although 46% of respondents are neither more nor less likely to visit a restaurant as a result of the scheme, the same proportion of the public are more likely to eat out in future, which indicates that the scheme has been relatively successful in building consumer confidence.
Looming threats of another lockdown and the seasonal end of al fresco dining mean there are real and genuine fears that the benefits of the scheme may be short-lived. In this context, there have been calls for Eat Out to Help Out to be extended or return later in the year. According to our poll, a narrow plurality of 45% believe the scheme should be extended, while 37% argue the opposite.
Notably, Labour voters (52%) are more likely to favour the scheme’s extension than Conservative voters (43%). Similarly, younger participants were more keen for the scheme to continue, even though they were no more likely than older respondents to approve of it in the first place.
The restaurant industry is concerned that footfall may be low in the months before Christmas without further Government support, yet there is no clear consensus around how long the scheme should run for if it is extended. Among those who favour an extension, a majority (54%) believe the scheme should be extended up until some point this year, while 43% say it should until the end of the year. The majority favouring a shorter extension is divided over which month to halt the scheme; 21% say the end of September, 24% the end of October, and 9% the end of November.
Attention has now turned towards efforts to instigate a strong economic recovery. Our previous polls have found no clear consensus supporting any one particular strategy to stimulate economic growth, and the latest poll did not prove much different. While higher taxes (32%) was the most popular strategy compared to cutting public spending (20%) or borrowing more (14%), a plurality (34%) answered that they did not know.
The most notable trend from previous months was that support for higher borrowing has consistently decreased, from 25% in June, to 22% in July, and now 14% at the start of September. The significant cost incurred by the Eat Out to Help Out and the furlough schemes appears to be causing concern among the public. However, alternative strategies to boost the economic recovery are also likely to prove controversial. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent hints at tax rises have sparked a backlash from his fellow Conservative MPs, and he has since had to reassure them that any tax increase will be minor. Meanwhile, it is unlikely that a Government committing to ‘leveling up’ will re-adopt the controversial austerity philosophy that defined Government in the 2010s.
Overall, while the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme has achieved its short-term goals of keeping the hospitality sector afloat and minimising layoffs and redundancies, questions remain in regard to how the deficit that the scheme contributed to can be tackled.