New stats suggest that restaurants and bars are responsible for a third of coronavirus cases, but what will staying inside mean for our mental health? Writer Megan Murray explains why this news has left her feeling confused, drained and scared.
Throughout the pandemic, there’s been a lot of confusion. First, there was Boris Johnson’s rambling address to the nation, which prompted my WhatsApp groups to explode the second he finished ‘explaining’ his plan, with everyone I knew asking the same thing: “What did he actually just say?”
The mixed messages have continued across a plethora of topics, from who should be using the Tube to whether or not you can go back to your workplace. But one area of particular contention has been the hospitality sector and whether or not we should be supporting it with schemes like Eat Out to Help Out, or avoiding it due to a rise in cases.
This morning (9 October) Business minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Breakfast that data presented to MPs by England’s chief medical officer showed that a third of coronavirus cases are linked to socialising in pubs, bars and restaurants.
It’s the latest news in a constant push and pull which has left me feeling confused, drained and scared.
The Eat Out to Help Out scheme was announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak back on 8 July. With this, he said he wanted to encourage “customers back into restaurants, cafes and pubs” and protect “the 1.8 million people who work in them”. We were told it was a plan to boost the economy, but it was also crucial for the mental health of a nation who had been sitting inside for three months.
For me, this scheme was transformative. Just before lockdown, I had moved out of London where I had lived for the last 10 years. Although initially having more space to take walks and enjoy my ‘one hour a day’ of exercise was positive, I started to experience a serious lowness in mood and constant fatigue after weeks turned into months of not seeing friends, family or work colleagues.
I’ve (very fortunately) never experienced mental health issues in my life before, but this time of isolation took me to a place that I could have never had expected. I lost any motivation and found it difficult to even get out of a bed in the morning, but when we were actively encouraged to go out and socialise, I slowly started to feel like myself again.
It’s clear that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme hasn’t gone as planned. A review of inflation rates for the month of August showed that these huge discounts for diners meant that the UK’s inflation rate dropped from 1% to 0.2%, which is the lowest it’s been in five years.
While headlines that had previously praised the scheme became more hostile in September, blaming it for a spike in cases with a subtext of shame for all those who indulged in getting 50% off their bill.
At times reporting around the success of Eat Out to Help Out has shown diners in an excessive, indulgent light. At the end of August, for example, the Daily Mail proclaimed that diners had formed “hours-long queues” outside restaurants and commented that people they had interviewed said they would “eat as much as possible” as the official scheme came to a close.
Now that the scheme is over, it feels like the finger is being pointed at ‘punters’ who, let’s remember, were told that this initiative was for the benefit of the hospitality industry and would be a financial saving grace after the impact of coronavirus.
What I’m really struggling with is this flip-flopping narrative and the confusion and stress it’s inciting on my already over-stretched mind.
My question is: why didn’t someone think about this before? Surely, there are a few experts knocking around parliament who might have been able to anticipate this sort of thing and work out what the official stance on it would be.
Perhaps, if a scheme of this magnitude was to be launched, and heralded as a financial lift for the hospitality industry, someone who was part of that decision might have tracked forward a few months to predict what the knock-on effect might be, on the people taking part and the economy.
Instead, it feels as if we’re being pushed into temporary solutions, only to be told off when they don’t work.
Personally, my head is spinning. I feel guilty for doing something my government advised, even though I know I shouldn’t. I feel scared for the rise in cases and the suggested links between this and going out for a meal. But I also feel scared for my mental health, and how I will feel if these privileges are taken away.
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