Eat out to help out are the words I always wanted to hear, so why do they make me so sad?

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Being instructed that we must “eat out to help out” is like a nationwide assignment to enjoy your favourite food. Though the words might be wrapped up as a favour to the hospitality industry, inside is a once-in-a-lifetime gift. The new initiative allows us to enter any participating restaurants between Monday and Wednesday and get a 50% discount on food and non-alcoholic drinks (with a maximum £10 saving per diner) at the government’s expense. It’s a great day to be alive, right?

Well, perhaps for the customer, but for the restaurant owners themselves, the prospects are a little more frightening. The fact that such a move is necessary is a stark reminder that our beloved bars, pubs, cafes and bistros are in a critical position. According to UKHospitality, the industry has seen a whopping 87% slump in the last quarter, bringing in almost £30 billion less than during the same three-month period last year. These are some bleak statistics for a sector that plays such a big part in the British economy, not to mention our social lives. As much as theatres and museums, these sacred spaces provide a haven for cultural enrichment in the capital.

Though restaurants are slowly reopening, the practical consequences of the revised safety guidelines are more than just having to implement one-way systems and apply sanitiser between courses. In reality, social distancing means reduced capacity, which means reduced turnover and incredibly tight margins. Empty tables simply aren’t sustainable in our new climate, especially for small businesses, so it’s no wonder that no-shows are causing chefs to get tougher on customers, with Frog’s Adam Handling raising his non-refundable deposit to 50% of the bill. Not turning up without calling used to be a matter of common decency; now it’s a matter of make or break.

The new scheme is certainly a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t come without its problems. Given that the discounts are only redeemable in the first half of the week, some business owners have expressed concern that it could affect weekend numbers, meaning that they may suffer in what is usually their busiest period. There have also been suggestions that it could undermine the anti-obesity campaign, with fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Pizza Hut all signing up. Not to mention the fact that even whilst taking precautions, eating out simply isn’t feasible for those who are shielding. Encouraging people onto the high street is a positive step forward in theory, but in practice, it could increase the risk of another surge if people become careless with the rules.

It’s a shame that this government-sanctioned plea to eat out – a call to action that until now was something I had only dreamed of – comes only as the counterbalance to a nightmarish reality. This is not to say that we shouldn’t enjoy playing our part, but rather that we should spare an extra thought for those feeding us, tip our servers generously and exercise both caution and patience as the industry gets back on its feet.

Rosamund Kelby

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