Dani Garavelli: Rishi Sunak’s side order of gimmickry really sticks in the craw

It took a 22-year-old Manchester United player to shame Boris Johnson into extending free meals for the country’s poorest schoolchildren over the summer at a cost of £120m. There is no shortage of research into the crucial role free meals play in the lives of those children, nor how many go malnourished during the holidays. But until Marcus Rashford forced his hand, Johnson stood firm: a stoney-faced Mr Bumble before thousands of empty-bowled Olivers.

Rishi Sunak serves customers at Wagamama without a mask.  Picture: Simon Walker/
HM Treasury
Rishi Sunak serves customers at Wagamama without a mask. Picture: Simon Walker/ HM Treasury

Four weeks on, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is the epitome of Victorian largesse, handing out £10 discounts on restaurant food bills with the zeal of Scrooge after he has confronted the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

Hooray, let’s fill our faces at Nando’s (other food emporiums may or may not be available). God Bless Us Everyone. Sunak’s Great British Giveaway – half-price meals (up to the value of £10 on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August at participating restaurants only, Ts and Cs apply) – is the shallowest of gimmicks. It feels less like a policy and more like a prize on some tacky quiz show, with Sunak the oleaginous host telling contestants they’ve hit the jackpot. Or the kind of “50% off pizzas when you spend £20 or more” offer that drops through your letterbox on a crudely printed flyer of a Saturday morning.

Just in case this wasn’t already clearly a stunt, Sunak took part in an embarrassing photo opportunity at – of all places – Wagamama, appearing like an undead butler at the table of unsuspecting diners to deliver up a couple of platters of Covid-19. He wore a rictus grin, visible because of No Mask, but was as apparently oblivious to the potential spreading of germs as he was to the optics of choosing Wagamama. This, a company which in 2017, was forced to apologise after one branch threatened employees with disciplinary action if they phoned in sick over Christmas, and was later fined for failing to pay the minimum wage. The photocall also backfired on Wagamama, which has brought more than 2,000 staff back from furlough, and must have been hoping it would benefit from the extra publicity rather than having to fight a rearguard action over health and safety.

It is possible Sunak’s bonanza may help a few less affluent families have a meal out (though who is liable if they become sick from doing so?) and provide a limited shot in the arm to a beleaguered industry. But focusing on hospitality (which is also benefiting from a cut in VAT) seems arbitrary. Why restaurants and not books or record stores? Why focus on big franchises, rather than small independents? Why not extend it to takeaways, which would allow those families to eat at home?

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Furthermore, the measure is not targeted, or redistributive and doesn’t pretend to address the underlying social factors causing the inequality that means some families cannot afford to eat out while others can. Essentially paternalistic, it also seems designed to deprive those who are struggling of what little agency they have. An alternative measure, much-touted in advance of the Covid mini-budget, but not in the end delivered, was £500 worth of vouchers (£250 per child) to spend on the High Street. Like the restaurant discount scheme, this would have been universal – benefiting rich and poor alike – but it would at least have given families an element of choice, allowing them to prioritise pants over Pizza Hut, toiletries over TGI Fridays, while spreading the spend over a wider range of outlets.

With no ability, or ambition, to effect structural change, the £500m cost of the restaurant giveaway – more than three times the cost of providing free school meals over the holidays – feels like a squandering of precious resources.

Imagine what that money would mean to the country’s food banks, which have faced unprecedented demand; or to the three million self-employed people who have been left to fend for themselves due to exclusions in the support package; or any initiative that might improve people’s long-term economic prospects.

To be fair, there were some more meaty measures: a £2bn kickstart job scheme for 16 to 24-year-olds, for example. But, like the decision to give an £1,000 bonus per furloughed employee businesses keep on until January 2021, the Chancellor’s flagship restaurant discount scheme was questioned both by HMRC’s top civil servant and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who questioned its value for money and said it was unlikely to increase the numbers of diners.

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To put it another way: for those people who can already afford to eat out, £10 off is a frippery, while for those who cannot it is a drop in the ocean. And in any case, most of those who are avoiding restaurants are doing so on grounds of health not cost.

But then, the point of the initiative is not to help poorer families eat and only partially to secure employment in the hospitality industry. Its overriding purpose is to generate a buzz – an air of celebration; to fuel the pretence that everything is normal, even as 80+ people a day continue to die of Covid-19 in England. This is the alternative reality Johnson and others have been peddling from the day they started easing lockdown: that it’s not merely OK to pack ourselves on to beaches and pubs – as if we were all sophomores on spring break rather than pandemic-weary adults with vulnerable relatives to protect – but that it is our civic duty. There was the reckless (and subsequently deleted) tweet: “Grab a drink and raise a glass”. And now this: “Eat Out to Help Out”. It won’t help out the economy much if there’s a second spike and we’re back in lockdown again by August. But, hey, let’s not kill the vibe.

In Scotland, the tone – if not the approach – has been very different, despite the fact we are down to single figure deaths each week. The SNP has made similar mistakes as the UK government – over PPE and testing – but Nicola Sturgeon has proved herself a master of expectation management.

While Johnson is whipping everyone up into a frenzy of post-lockdown partying, Sturgeon is constantly telling us not to get carried away with ourselves. You can no more imagine her serving food without a mask in Wagamama than you can imagine Johnson delivering a lecture on moral responsibility.

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But this is the UK government’s mistake. It takes us for a nation of infants craving constant amusement rather than grown-ups who understand the concept of deferred gratification. It thinks we would rather party on than accept ongoing restrictions in the hopes Covid-19 might be eliminated.

That it is a mistake can be seen in polls which show Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic has been consistently rated higher than Johnson’s. The SNP is predicted to increase its dominance in next year’s Holyrood elections and support for independence is at an all-time high.

We are still in the midst of the biggest crisis of our generation. The idea anyone will be won over by £10 off a bowl of ramen is ludicrous. What most people want is serious politics from serious politicians; and an end to flashy stunts and gimmicks.

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