Is eating out really helping out?
Henry Quach questions contradictory messages coming from the government with the eat out to help out scheme making junk food more affordable.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the nationwide ‘eat out to help out’ scheme on 8 July 2020 in a bid to help rejuvenate the hard-hit hospitality industry.
This government scheme allows participating restaurants to offer customers half priced meals on Mondays to Wednesdays throughout August. The offer does not include alcoholic drinks and there is a maximum discount of £10 per person.
The hospitality sector employs 1.8 million people. And 1.4 million of these workers were on the furlough scheme in April 2020.
As the nation begins to open up again, hospitality will play an important role in the UK’s road to economic recovery.
Three weeks later in July, the government announced its new obesity strategy along with the ‘better health’ campaign.
Advertising junk food is banned before the watershed. And ‘buy one get one free’ offers on foods high in fat or sugar are no longer permitted. There is stricter food labelling regulations and GPs can soon even prescribe cycling to overweight patients.
Obesity remains one of the UK’s worst public health issues. With 63% of adults in England either obese or overweight. With a cost to the NHS in related illnesses of £6bn a year.
In June, a review of evidence published by Public Health England shows that being overweight is one of the biggest risk factors for severe illness or death from COVID-19.
Studies now show that people from lower socio-economic groups are more likely to be overweight (Bentley, Ormerod and Ruck, 2018). Food high in calories and low in nutrition is cheaper and easier to prepare than healthier, fresh produce. Thanks to the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme, fast food will become even more affordable. With a McDonald’s cheeseburger costing as little as 49p.
Lockdown has had a profound impact on the general health of the population.
Reports show an increase in snacking frequency, alcohol intake and lower levels of physical exercise during lockdown. All of these combined with greater accessibility to cheap, high calorie food. This will surely cause obesity levels to continue to rise.
Government ministers promoting and encouraging dining out will directly contradict their goals to tackle obesity. On one hand, we have new legalisation banning ‘buy one get one free’ promotions for high calorie products. And on the other hand, fast food is offered at half price.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson commented on the obesity strategy: ‘If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus. As well as taking pressure off the NHS’.
I would argue the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme will actually increase our health risks through weight gain and associated illnesses.
Eating out will place people at greater risk of coronavirus due to difficulties with social distancing and lack of mask wearing in restaurants. There is a greater likelihood of severe illness for overweight patients with COVID-19. This in turn will place added pressure on the NHS.
Impact on oral health
With the pandemic placing routine dental care on hold for nearly six months, many patients have had ongoing treatments or routine preventative care postponed.
In particular children with high risk of dental caries and require more frequent recall have been unable to access this during the pandemic. Dental extractions under general anaesthetic remains the number one reason for paediatric hospital admissions in the UK.
These already under pressure services are severely affected by the postponement of elective surgery. Waiting lists continue to grow with waiting times sitting well out-with the 18-week referral to treatment target.
Dentists now face a significant backlog of patients. Many of whom will have had some deterioration of their oral health. It is likely the message to eat out at fast food outlets where meals are not only high in calories but also in sugar, will only worsen the oral health divide.
It is promising to see the government placing tackling obesity at the forefront of its message. However, the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme certainly brings into question the government’s commitment. While economic recovery is important, people’s health and wellbeing should not continue as an afterthought.
Bentley RA, Ormerod P and Ruck DJ (2018) Recent origin and evolution of obesity-income correlation across the United States. Palgrave Commun 4: 146