Rishi Sunak is facing calls to investigate whether Treasury officials concealed or ignored evidence that his £849m ‘eat out to help’ scheme fueled the spread of the pandemic.
Officials dismissed a University of Warwick study in October 2020 that said Sunak’s initiative may have caused a significant increase in Covid-19 infections. The report estimated that between 8% and 17% of the new clusters discovered could be linked to the scheme.
Although the government categorically rejects the findings, the publication of former health secretary Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages appears to confirm that there were concerns about the then chancellor’s summer 2020 plan that led to an increase in infections.
In leaked messages obtained by Daily TelegraphMr Hancock told Cabinet Secretary Simon Case he had “kept it out of the news” that the initiative was spreading the virus. He said his department had informed the Treasury and was “protecting” officials.
Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London and a former senior official at the Treasury, said: “It seems [the Treasury] he deliberately tried to hide what evidence he was eating to help.
“We need to know what exactly the Department of Health told the Treasury, what was said internally about the data and what was the advice to ministers.”
He said the evidence so far suggests there may have been a “cover-up” and the Treasury had to release all relevant documents. He said it was “shameful” and “unprofessional” for the University of Warwick’s paper to be rejected, which involved a matter of high public importance, and that an inquiry should now be carried out.
The scheme, which launched in August 2020, was one of Sunak’s measures while he was chancellor to support the economy as it reopened after shutting down. It offered 50% off, up to £10 per person, on meals and soft drinks on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Businesses can claim a refund from HM Revenue and Customs every week.
A working paper published by Thiemo Fetzer, professor of economics at the University of Warwick, found that the initiative was closely linked to the rise in new cases in August and early September. The article said the virus was spreading faster in areas with many participating restaurants, and said the program could have “public health costs that far outweigh the short-term economic benefits.”
Fetzer said on Saturday that he had submitted a request to the public inquiry into Covid-19 and believed the scheme should now be investigated through hearings. He said: “The second wave of the pandemic was inoculated in the summer and eating out to help contributed to that.
“It was only available on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, so people changed their eating habits. It created crowded spaces.”
He said the Treasury rejected his work, but did not provide any substantial evidence that the program did not cause an increase in infections. “They didn’t do a rigorous analysis,” he said. In January 2021, the Treasury said its own analysis showed that areas with high program utilization had low levels of consecutive Covid-19 cases. The Institute for Government said the analysis was “pretty thin” and did not adequately address criticism of the scheme.
The government’s concern that the program was spreading the pandemic was revealed in Hancock’s WhatsApp messages. On August 24, 2020, while the initiative was still ongoing, he wrote to Case saying: “We’ve received a lot of feedback that [eat out to help out] causes problems… I’ve kept it off the news, but it’s a serious matter. So please, please, let’s not let the economic success of the program lead to its extension.”
Hancock later referred to this regimen in another December 2020 message as “eat out to help the virus spread.”
A government source said: “We’ve been through this so many times. Many European countries experienced an increase in virus transmission at exactly the same time as the UK, including those that do not have similar hospitality support programmes. Officials say many European countries have experienced an increase in infections at the same time, but have not put in place policies aimed at increasing demand in the hospitality sector.
They find it difficult to determine the causes of transmission, but it appears that the spread of infection was largely due to private gatherings, moving within households, and failure to observe social distancing measures.