Eat Out to Help Out: The highs and lows of the coronavirus discount scheme

By Francesca Gillett
BBC News

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image copyrightDanielle Hughes

"When are we going to get this opportunity again?" says Danielle Hughes, from Livingston in West Lothian. She estimates that she's saved £150 on eating out this month - money that's been stumped up by the taxpayer.

She is one of millions of people who have been taking part in the government's Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which sees diners get 50% off their bill, up to a total discount of £10, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout August. It ends next week, on Bank Holiday Monday.

Danielle, 24, has eaten out every day that the scheme has been going, and sometimes twice a day. She plans to continue until the offer ends on 31 August.

"I've just been trying to make the most of it," she says. "It's all been really good. Even all the places that have been really busy, they have all had super good customer service."

She says as soon as the scheme was announced she knew she wanted to use the offer as much as possible.

"I have been out for breakfast sometimes and then out for dinner as well," she says. Has she ever been tempted to do three meals out in one day? "That's probably too much for my belly to handle," she laughs.

image copyrightDanielle Hughes
image captionDanielle says she's returned to Wagamama the most, for a total of five times. "It's one of my favourite restaurants."

"I'd love to see it extended or for it to happen again," says the University of Glasgow student, who is training to be a religious education teacher. "I don't want it to be over but it's probably good for my bank balance.

"I'm not going to go out at all in September. In September I will be eating at home probably for the whole month."

Daniel Davies-Luke, from Hartlepool, estimates he has saved £218 on meals out, often with his six-year-old daughter, Luna. "She's a little food-muncher," he says. Both of them have also been out to eat every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday - and did once manage to do so three times in the same day.

image copyrightDaniel Davies-Luke
image captionOne of their favourites was a Brazilian restaurant they visited in Edinburgh. "We had never had Brazilian food. Luna was having virgin pina coladas."

Daniel says he had "saved so much money through lockdown" and with lots of the traditional summer holiday activities closed, eating out was a natural choice.

"We have tried to keep away from the chains as those guys have got big bank balances anyway," he says, adding that it was important to support local businesses. "Apart from McDonald's once, it's all been independent places."

"We are going to pay for it ourselves on our tax anyway," he says. "Everyone knows there's a big tax bill around the corner. We are going to pay it back over the long run."

image copyrightDaniel Davies-Luke
image captionLuna's dad Daniel says he'd like to see the scheme, or something similar, extended through September

The scheme began at the start of the month, and in the first three weeks it was used more than 64 million times. The idea was to tempt people back into pubs and restaurants to boost the struggling hospitality sector, which suffered badly during the coronavirus lockdown.

The government set aside £500m to pay for it, and restaurants apply to reclaim the money. "The money is in my account in 3-5 days," says chef and restaurant owner Linsey Scott, who runs Mason Belles Kitchen in Linlithgow and Dunblane.

Linsey says it's been "absolutely brilliant for us". Like many other businesses, she amended her restaurant opening times for it, and she plans on independently carrying the offer on into September by funding it herself - albeit with a maximum discount of £5 per person, rather than £10.

'I want it to end'

Many businesses say they would love for the government to extend it, amid fears customer numbers could drop away in September.

But alongside the calls for an extension, there are some who can't wait to see the back of it. Some restaurant staff say they have faced hostility and abuse from customers.

"I have worked in hospitality for over seven years and have never experienced anything like this," says Amy Erkin, 21, a University of Nottingham student who works in a pub in her hometown in Norfolk.

image copyrightAmy Erkin
image caption"It's just a really weird time for hospitality and retail. It's not what anyone expected," says Amy

"The amount of hassle staff have been given for turning people away or there just being a 20 minute wait," she says. "I've dealt with customers who have got really aggressive, I have had to ask customers to leave.

"People are having this attitude that I'm coming here to help you out, I want this now."

She adds: "Obviously I know it's a really good scheme and it has helped a lot of places out, but I have hated it. It's given me anxiety going to work.

"I used to love my job, I have always said I loved working in hospitality. And I said to my boss 'Realistically, if they decide to carry this scheme on through September, I will probably leave and find another job elsewhere'.

"I don't want to come to work and deal with horrible people."

She also says she and her colleagues have noticed "a really large lack of tips" compared to the rest of the week.

"I think it's again, people are seeing what they are doing they are putting money into the pub, they think there is no need to leave a tip because they are already helping out by eating out."

The Eat Out to Help Out sign
PA Media
Eat Out to Help Out in numbers

  • 84,000restaurants registered

  • 64mmeals dished up

  • 1 in 10people had taken part by mid August

  • 41%likely or very likely to take part

  • 36% unlikely to very unlikely to take part

  • 1 in 2people who weren't taking part were afraid of catching virus

Source: Gov.uk and Office for National Statistics, up to 16 August

Jordan Griffiths, who is a waitress in Porthcawl, says she has also faced abuse. "Last week I had someone swearing at me on the phone. They wanted to book a party of 20. I tried to explain there's no way we could book in 20, the only thing we could do is we have got tables outside. He told me I'd ruined his day."

She says when she sees the rota with her name down on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, "literally I just want to cry". "I don't want to work those shifts."

Meanwhile, some businesses warn the offer is affecting weekend bookings, as people are eating out at the start of the week instead.

The Treasury has not said it will be extended - despite calls from the industry. A spokesman said: "Part of this popularity is precisely because it is a time-limited scheme - this reminds and encourages people to safely return to going out."

It said the scheme "complements a wider package of hospitality support that goes beyond August, including cutting VAT to 5%, paying the wages of furloughed staff, business rates relief and billions in tax deferrals and loans".

"Boosting confidence, boosting footfall has been the most significant thing this scheme has done," says Kate Nicholls, head of UK Hospitality that represents the sector.

But she warns that a third of their members are still not open, especially in city and town centres where footfall is lower. "That means there's a million of our team still on furlough," she says.

For many diners and restaurants, it's been a ray of light in an otherwise tough year. "I hope at the end of the scheme the pubs and other places can look and say it's been a positive thing," says Neil Simon, who runs a local Facebook page for Hartlepool residents to discuss the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

Neil, who works as a drayman delivering beer, has also used the offer every day. "It's a bit strange when it comes to Thursday and I have to start cooking again," he jokes. "I have been over-indulging a little bit but we can all have a treat."

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