UK: £2m spent on focus groups for ‘eat out to help out’ scheme

Rishi Sunak commissioned several taxpayer-funded focus groups and surveys to shape the messaging of his proposed “eat out to help out” initiative in July 2020. This occurred without consulting the UK’s top medical and scientific advisors. The Treasury secured five contracts worth over £2 million between June 2020 and the pandemic’s peak to gauge public opinion, particularly on promoting the hospitality scheme. Despite resistance, the information commissioner mandated the release of nearly six weeks’ worth of internal emails, shedding light on the process.

The documents reveal that only after Sunak’s announcement did the Treasury consider public concerns about the scheme’s impact on COVID-19 transmission. Sunak refutes claims that the £850 million policy fueled a second wave of infections, despite studies suggesting it contributed to an increase of 8% to 17%. Moreover, the economic benefits were short-lived.

Critics within the government reportedly dubbed Sunak “Dr. Death” for launching the scheme without consulting senior scientific advisors. Over 184 focus groups were conducted during Sunak’s tenure, mainly targeting politically sensitive regions like the East Midlands, West Midlands, and the North-East.

Initially, public sentiment was skeptical, with only 13% agreeing with incentivizing dining out to return to normal life. Discussions ensued on framing the scheme as a job-saving effort rather than merely a leisure activity. Concerns about health risks were raised post-announcement, prompting internal debates.

The government’s handling of the pandemic faces renewed scrutiny, especially with revelations from the inquiry. Despite the Treasury justifying opinion testing as essential during the crisis, much of the focus was on crafting communication strategies rather than policy development.

The information commissioner emphasized the public interest in understanding how polling shaped COVID-19 policies. Labour’s deputy leader criticized Sunak for prioritizing political image over public health concerns.

While an internal report allegedly downplayed the scheme’s role in infection spikes, it remains undisclosed. The Treasury maintains that research informed policy decisions, including initiatives like “eat out to help out,” aimed at supporting the hospitality industry and associated jobs during the pandemic.

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