Government leaders in Birmingham have submitted a proposal for a “test and dine” scheme that would allow people to eat out in restaurants just hours after being tested for Covid-19 – but could the idea ever really work?
A poll by the British Chambers of Commerce found that 66% of restaurants, bars and cafes reported a fall in sales between June and October – this despite the government’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme designed to support food and drink businesses, with discounts running throughout the month of August.
Now, however, local councillors in Birmingham are suggesting a new way to support hard-hit restaurants. The city is currently on very high alert in Tier 3 of the Covid-19 system, meaning hospitality venues can operate on a takeaway-only basis.
But leaders in the area have submitted a “test and dine” plan to the government that is intended to help restaurants reopen again – with diners taking a Covid-19 test just hours before eating out.
The plan has yet to be approved by the government, who haven’t responded to Birmingham council’s request yesterday. But if the idea is given the green light, it could provide a framework for dining out across the UK.
“We would allow them [diners] to be tested and provided the test was negative and the booking was within six hours of that test, they would be able to go and dine at that restaurant,” said council leader Ian Ward, speaking at the West Midlands Covid-19 briefing – as reported by the Birmingham Mail and the BBC.
“We think this is a measure that could further help the hospitality sector,” he went on. “We would pilot it initially with a very small number of restaurants. If it worked, we would look to expand that, looking forward.”
It’s not yet clear who would pay for the Covid-19 tests, or how restaurants could apply for the potential scheme. Neither is it known whether other hospitality venues, such as pubs or coffee shops, could take part.
The idea has so far attracted a mixed reaction on Twitter. While some people have applauded the ingenuity of the plan, others questioned its viability and pointed out flaws.
Globally, some restaurants are already demanding that guests undergo Covid-19 tests before being allowed to book a table. City Winery, in New York City’s Meatpacking district, is one venue that recently trialled a rapid testing programme for diners at $50 a go. The pilot scheme, which ran in November, saw would-be diners undergo a nasal swab test before entering the premises, with a 10- to 15-minute wait for results.
“A COVID-19 test is one of the only solutions to get patrons inside restaurants for the next five months until springtime,” said founder and CEO Michael Dorf.
Indoor dining has since been banned in the city, amid soaring infection rates.
Even if UK restaurants did decide to implement their own private testing systems, however, this would raise serious questions about accessibility and fairness – making dining out a prospect that is even further out of reach from those who can’t afford it than it normally would be.
In addition, it’s currently unclear whether high-speed tests could perform as accurately as they’d need to in such a scenario.
The government’s Eat Out To Dine Out scheme led to a 216% increase in bookings in August, with 80% of businesses that took part branding it a success. However, with a third of coronavirus cases linked to hospitality soon after that period, and a subsequent plunge in inflation rates, it’s clear that the initiative also came with problems.
It remains to be seen whether or not this latest test and dine concept gets approved. But for now at least, venues in tier three remain shut to diners.