A little over a year ago, the government announced the Eat Out to Help Out scheme to encourage the British public to spend more money in restaurants after the first pandemic lockdown. Unfortunately, the programme helped push COVID infections up and led to a further lockdown. University of Portsmouth student Lucy Nother was waitressing in a Portsmouth restaurant during the height of Eat Out to Help Out (EOTHO)- and she found it challenging and stressful.
On the 8th of July 2020, just two days after pubs and restaurants countrywide had reopened their doors, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak proposed a plan that aimed to get the public spending again. He announced that every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in August, we would ‘Eat Out To Help Out’– the government would pay 50% of our food bill, subsidising the money back to the restaurants. Standing behind the bar as my manager read this news from his phone, dread filled my stomach – August was going to be a long month.
Our food prices were reasonable already, so half off certainly appealed to the masses. We also had a very large pub garden, and the summer was blessing us with heights of 33℃ and beautiful sunshine. Brilliant for business, but hard work for staff. Come 12pm on Monday, what would normally be an empty pub other than a few staff members and a couple of punters drinking coffee, was now a full restaurant with an hour delay on food and a line out the door waiting for a table.
‘Every table in the pub was full and there were people asking to sit outside in the dark at 9.30 just so they could get the discount,’ said my co-worker and bar supervisor of four years, who has chosen to remain anonymous. ‘Instead of having ebbs and flows like a normal day would with lunch and dinner services being the busiest parts of the day, it just kept getting busier from 3pm until 10pm.’
There was no time limit on the scheme, meaning the discount applied as soon as we opened to as soon as the kitchen shut. This made breaks very difficult to manage, as normally trade lulled between 2pm and 5pm giving enough time for staff members working ‘AFDs’ (an industry term meaning ‘all day’. I’ll let you work out what the F stands for) to get a lunch break in. A full restaurant all day meant this was practically impossible. This isn’t an excuse from management either; losing a staff member for an hour mid-rush just meant playing catch up all day. It was a choice of having an hour break and working twice as hard during your colleague’s break, or powering through until 8pm.
Like many industries, the hospitality sector had to adapt to be compliant with government guidance. Our pub was no different and introduced a mobile phone order and pay app to reduce contact and keep people sat at their tables. ‘We had just introduced this app, which meant we as staff had no way of slowing down the orders,’ explains my supervisor. ‘Before then we could strategically slow down the influx of tickets through to the kitchen, but that was now impossible as customers using their phones could place as many orders as they liked, without having to wait in lines or for a waiter to come to them.’
‘It drained a lot of members of staff. I saw a chef who has been in the industry for over ten years look at his ticket machine pumping out orders and just say, “I don’t want to do this.” I thought he was going to walk out,’ recalls my supervisor. ‘A lot of staff members had similar thoughts of leaving due to stress caused by the overwhelming number of customers.’
One shift that sticks in my memory was a Tuesday evening. It was about 5pm, and the temperature outside was still in the high twenties. My two line chefs had been working all day, non-stop, in a kitchen that was easily twice as hot as the pub garden. As Steve rang the service bell, I watched him squeeze his eyes open and shut, hands on the pass, breathing heavily. He had not had a break since he started at 9am and I was increasingly worried he was going to collapse right in front of me. I got two jugs of iced water from the bar, told the bar staff to add an extra thirty minutes onto the food wait and told Steve and his sous chef Mike to go sit down outside in the shade for at least 15 minutes. Not even five minutes later, I had a middle-aged man shouting at a 17-year-old waitress, demanding to see a manager due to the time his food was taking. I did not hesitate to tell him why it was taking so long – nor did I apologise.
Looking back, I should have been more professional. I should have told him that I was sincerely sorry that his £4.50 sirloin steak was taking an hour to come from the kitchen, and that I would work harder to resolve the issue for him and maybe offered a round of complimentary drinks. After working in pub management for five years, I have developed the patience of a saint, but EOTHO managed to break that in a matter of weeks. I felt angry, that amid a global pandemic, I was masked and gloved, working the busiest shifts of my career. I was angry that these customers had no idea that by Wednesday evening, myself, my manager and several other staff members were on their third 14-hour shift in a row, due to self-isolating and ill team members. However, it was not the punters’ fault – it was Sunak’s.
I am aware that the economy was in desperate need of a boost, but the scheme completely disregarded the safety and wellbeing of hospitality workers. Anyone who has worked with food will tell you it is not a walk in the park. When Sunak came up with the scheme, I imagine his eyeballs turning to comical pound signs. He stated that he cared so much about the industry as he worked as a waiter in a Southampton restaurant during the 1990s – so surely he understood the pressure that waiters would be under due to his scheme. Either he forgot how taxing the job is on the body, or he simply did not care.
I’m not writing this to moan about my job. I enjoy my job; I take pride in delivering a fantastic service to drinkers and diners. However, the higher the pressure, the lower the quality of work. It is simply impossible to maintain the standard of customer experience when you are so rushed off your feet. If the service you provide is of a poor standard, customers are unlikely to return.
When September rolled around, the pub felt like a different establishment. The faces we greeted once a week for a month were nowhere to be seen. If you had paid a fiver for a burger one week, why would you pay double for it the next? The business had done incredibly well one month, yes. But well enough to sustain a whole further month with less trade than usual? That was unlikely.
‘Overall, I think it was an awful idea because although it made money for the businesses who had been closed, it still cost the government money and didn’t solve any problems,’ confessed my supervisor.
The University Of Warwick estimated the scheme was responsible for between eight and 17 per cent of all infections over the summer months. All staff were worried the plan would set us back – and given that we soon entered a third national lockdown in under a year, it is difficult to bite my tongue to stop the ‘I told you so’ from escaping. Thankfully, the vaccination programme is the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel and we are now returning to normality.
But Mr Sunak, please think carefully before devising any more schemes that compromise the safety and wellbeing of an entire industry force.
Image credit: U.S. Department of Treasury, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
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