‘The optics are terrible’: how Rishi Sunak’s 2020 ‘eat out to help out’ scheme backfired

There is no blue heritage plaque above the stainless-steel open kitchen at the branch of Wagamama at London’s Festival Hall – but the restaurant might have claims to one. It was here, in delivering a couple of plates of katsu curry – one chicken, one vegan – on 8 July 2020, that our current prime minister in effect launched his campaign for the country’s leadership.

During that lockdown spring as pandemic chancellor, Rishi Sunak had one of the few enviable public roles: he was cast as the man who saved the economy by giving money away. By the time he pitched up at Wagamama that lunchtime, his various Covid-help schemes had dished out £176bn in furlough payments and loans and deferred taxes. In those efforts Sunak, little known before the crisis, had sometimes looked like the only sober and responsible member of her majesty’s government. The headline act of his summer budget statement, “eat out to help out”, changed that narrative.

Having announced his restriction-busting policy to Tory cheers in parliament – including the shout of “Down the pub, everyone!” – Sunak hotfooted it across Waterloo Bridge and pinned on a Wagamama name badge. He excitedly served up noodles – notably mask-less in contravention of the guidelines – to socially distanced diners before further explaining his great national half-price meal giveaway to reporters.

I’m not sure if the videos of that sequence of events have been requested by the Covid inquiry, which is currently examining the government’s catastrophic handling of the crisis. If not, prior to his day questioning Sunak tomorrow, the inquiry’s lead barrister, Hugo Keith KC, might find it useful to call up those clips on YouTube. They provide some of the mood music to the moment in British history when the prime minister was first identified by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Dame Angela McLean, as “Dr Death”.

Angela McLean, with short hair and a button down shirt under a blazer, sits with her hands folded in front of a microphone
Chief scientific adviser Professor Dame Angela McLean, who called Sunak ‘Dr Death’, testifies at the Covid inquiry in November 2023. Photograph: UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA

Looking back at the footage now, you might see the genesis of much that has happened since. Behind Sunak delivering his policy at the dispatch box, Boris Johnson sat slumped, his disquiet occasionally signalled by the involuntary jiggling of his thigh on the green benches. He doesn’t seem anxious about any rashness in the policies themselves – obviously – rather about Sunak’s centre-stage authority. The chancellor had been hand-picked by Dominic Cummings to be the straightest of straight men to Johnson’s risk-taking populist. And yet here was the straight man shamelessly playing to the crowd, and with his own line in asinine sloganeering.

A week earlier, in confirming the reopening of the hospitality industry, Johnson and his chancellor had an awkward-looking lunch at another restaurant chain, Pizza Pilgrims, No 10’s go-to lockdown takeaway. That event had hardly created a stir, still less a catchphrase. But now the media couldn’t get enough of Sunak serving meals solo. Labour may have claimed: “We were promised a new deal, and he delivered a meal deal”, but the rightwing press was in an arms race of praise for the “imperturbable” chancellor.

The Daily Mail asked this breathless question: “Rishi dazzled pure sunshine … but did his miraculous banquet of freebies stick in Boris’s craw?” Opinion polling that week declared that Sunak was the “most popular chancellor since Gordon Brown in the millennium year”, with approval ratings far ahead of any other politician in the land. The news prefaced the launch of “brand Rishi” as the chancellor took to replacing the Conservative logo and adding his personal signature to Treasury policy notes on social media, clearly beginning to position himself as Johnson’s successor.

The evidence is not settled as to whether Sunak’s policy – “eat out to help out the virus,” as Matt Hancock and Sir Chris Whitty both privately understood it – directly caused a new spike in Covid cases and the inevitable march toward that year’s second round of restrictions, hospitalisations and untimely deaths. One early Warwick University study claimed that the policy resulted in an 8-17% rise in new Covid clusters, though those figures have since been disputed. The principle it did unequivocally reinforce, however, was that the chancellor was no different from his boss in grasping the easy headline-seeking course over the pragmatic and cautious one.

In his evidence to the Covid inquiry the world-leading epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was highly critical of both the tone and effect of Sunak’s scheme. “To be honest it made me angry, and I’m still angry about it,” he said. “It was one thing taking your foot off the brake, which is what we’d been doing by easing the restrictions, but to put the foot on the accelerator seemed to me perverse. And to spend public money to do that – 45,000 people had just died. I don’t want to blame ‘eat out to help out’ for the second wave, because that’s not the case. But just the optics of it were terrible.”

A waitress in a T-shirt, jeans and mask walks down Frith Street, where many people are eating at tables in the street
Diners using Sunak’s ‘eat out to help out’ scheme on Frith Street in London’s Soho on 11 August 2020. Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

Sunak will no doubt argue to the inquiry that his controversial policy was designed to protect jobs, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the accelerated “let it rip” approach to pubs and restaurants did not make even economic sense. The Treasury had received in May 2020 a study from Oxford University showing that a far safer way to revive the economy would be to focus on non-customer facing sectors, such as construction and manufacturing – while keeping restrictions in restaurants and pubs and supporting that sector with direct payments – but where was the feelgood slogan in that?

By September, £849m had been claimed through the scheme, which provided discounts on 160m meals, but there was minimal evidence of any lasting economic benefit. (It didn’t take a Stanford MBA and a career at Goldman Sachs to guess that for the duration of the scheme people would choose to eat out on the subsidised days, Monday to Wednesday, and that restaurant business would fall away at the end of the week.)

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Several documents before the inquiry shed light on some of Sunak’s motivations. As well as the stark implications of Sir Patrick Vallance’s contemporaneous note about Sunak’s reported response to the prospect of a second lockdown in October 2020 – “We should let people die” – the prime minister will no doubt be questioned on a memo sent to his Treasury team that first mooted an “eat out” voucher scheme to Johnson way back on 22 May. Johnson, full of praise for his ideas, favoured calling the policy “spring back summer”.

Johnson’s own shambling appearance before the inquiry last week added to the questions. Above all, there is the matter of whether the two senior advisers at the heart of government Covid policy had been consulted at all on the “eat out to help out” idea (despite Johnson and Sunak talking about it in May). Sir Patrick Vallance, chief government scientist, said on oath: “We didn’t see it before it was announced,” adding: “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.” Johnson mumbled that he thought it was “inconceivable” that the policy had been “smuggled through” without Vallance or Sir Chris Whitty being aware, without providing any evidence for that contention.

No doubt Hugo Keith KC will be hampered in getting to the truth of such questions by the – scandalous – fact that Sunak’s messages from the period have not been made available to the inquiry. He claims, like Johnson, to have “repeatedly changed and not backed up” the phones he had as chancellor of the exchequer in a time of national crisis. (You imagine, hearing these repetitive excuses, that if pressed the prime minister may yet adopt the defence offered by one key witness in last year’s “Wagatha Christie” trial who announced that her phone had slipped from her hand over the side of a North Sea ferry, just as it had been requested for legal disclosure.)

The day-long televised grilling of the prime minister will kick off a perilous week in Sunak’s leadership, to be followed on Tuesday by the vote in parliament on the Rwanda bill. In the context, it is tempting to see a clear thread between “eat out to help out” and that desperate piece of legislation. The politician who appears to have deliberately excluded scientific opinion to self-promote “unique approaches” to the pandemic is very clearly the same man who believes that law courts have no place in questioning the legality of deportation. In both instances the risks to human life and to national reputation seem to come a distant second to a need for easy headlines. In that original summer budget statement Sunak announced: “We will not be defined by this crisis, but by our response to it.” Time is revealing those to be some of the truer words he has spoken.