Comment

Eating out to help out is no match for getting back to the office

Millions have risked the virus to bag a discount dinner. It proves we are ready to go back to life as normal, including work

Eat out to help out
Rishi Sunak's £10 discounts have packed out the nation's restaurants and cafes – and in doing so, proved we are all ready to go back to work Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty 

Packed restaurants and busy bars bring joy, and perhaps cholesterol, to the heart after months of lockdown and desolation on the high street.

Rishi Sunak’s "eat out to help out" scheme has given swathes of previously deserted eateries at least three busy days per week, and seems to have brought out plenty of customers who would not otherwise have indulged.

This columnist has so far managed three discount dinners when he would usually have stayed at home. It would have been more if so many places had not been fully booked.

It is a spectacular, recession-busting start to August for the hospitality industry.

But Sunak’s suppers were not only intended to give cafes a one-month boost.

It seems there is a fair chance the Chancellor has successfully rebooted the hospitality industry for good. After all, it would be odd for people who spent much of August stuffing their faces in public to coop themselves back up again indefinitely from September.

Yet even this should not be the ultimate goal.

Rishi’s dishies have reacquainted us with spending significant amounts of time among un-masked strangers. All this gorging has stopped Britons cowering at home, a key step in restoring them to their true free-roaming, free-spending selves.

If you can sit next to a group of diners at the local curry house, you can also sit a short distance from your colleagues – back in the office.

Anyone eating out expects waiters, bartenders and chefs to do their jobs, so has hardly got an excuse for their own reluctance to return to work.

Bosses chowing down at the Chancellor’s (or taxpayers’) expense can hardly fail to notice this gulf either. Their staff cannot have it both ways: to simultaneously be perfectly happy to risk infection for a ten quid bargain, but remain horrified by the hazards of the commute.

So now is their moment: combined with the return of school, the coming weeks are an ideal time to return to business as usual.

A-grade disaster

It is crucial that schools do return, as the fiasco over A-levels and Highers has shown.

With little chance to learn and no chance to prove themselves, pupils’ opportunities are dwindling before their eyes.

Good grades are extremely valuable, and so is education itself.

A study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Department of Education in 2015 found that five good GCSEs boost lifetime earnings by £80,000. Add two A-levels to rake in another £60,000.

University adds more, quickly. By their mid-20s a typical graduate earns 11pc more than their degreeless counterpart, says the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Add a top university or high-powered degree and the numbers spiral. So being cut off from these opportunities without taking an exam is cruel in the extreme.

It is common for smart Alec adults to casually dismiss school results on the basis that they have not been asked about their GCSEs or A-levels in decades. 

Some claim school knowledge is of no use in the wider world, which rather misses the utility of basic knowledge of languages, say, or the sciences.

It also ignores the importance of arts and social sciences, which connect pupils with the wider world and act as a useful signal to prove to employers that they are clever.

Crucially, this patronising and belittling attitude neglects the fact that education and careers are a series of stepping stones.

That know-it-all adult no longer includes A-levels on their CV, but if they had missed that first stepping stone they might never have gone to university, or struggled to get that first job, and remained stuck at the bottom of the career ladder.

The only minute positive comes in a different academic sense.

Economists love a "natural experiment’" when one crucial factor changes, allowing them to examine the impact of a variable on the real world.

In this instance, it is education. What happens when you cancel months of school?

It will be a real gold mine of information for future researchers, digging in to the detail of prosperity and earnings and personal development.

Unfortunately the main result is already clear: trashing education is a disaster, particularly for the poorest children who are stripped of their best chance to change their lives for the better.

Triumph from disaster

If that miserable excuse for a silver lining is too gloomy for you, a more positive one might be that the business school case studies of the future are being born right now.

2020 might seem a particularly foolhardy year to set out with your own venture. Yet the greatest recession for three hundred years brings reasons to anticipate a wave of innovation and investment.

I am not talking about the accelerated digitisation of business, or the shift from human contact to online sales. Instead I am referring to the three basics of enterprise, the factors of production: land, labour and capital.

All are extremely cheap right now, indicating the great potential for an entrepreneurial growth spurt. Land is cheap. Commercial landlords are desperate for businesses to move in and pay rent – any rent.

Unemployment is rising so the skills shortage of recent years has suddenly, painfully, become a glut. Snap up staff while you can.

And with rock-bottom interest rates and banks under orders to lend, it is not the worst time to go looking for funds.

Much of the debt on offer is going to existing businesses to help them survive the lockdown, rather than to new businesses.

Yet even this points to opportunities for a start-up, as the older competition is weighed down with debt.

Some companies were heavily indebted going into the pandemic. Others have levered up to survive.New entrants can join the fray unencumbered by this toxic legacy.

Just as yawning pension fund deficits made industrial titans vulnerable to plucky upstarts, so new businesses may find they are more able to invest and innovate than their indebted pre-Covid rivals.

Companies House recorded a rise in incorporations in the three months to June, even as the country officially entered a fierce recession. It was the biggest year-on-year increase for a second quarter since 2012.

The corporate success stories of the future are being built on a shoe-string right now.