Britain’s appetite for the new normal will leave us all with a stomach ache

If the end of Eat Out to Help Out has you dreading the autumn, I’m sorry to say there’s far more 
to fear

Diners eat outside the Ivy Market Grill, in London
The Chancellor’s discount scheme has encouraged a rush to restaurants Credit: Dominic Lipinski  /PA

Everyone has a friend who’s scheduled their Eat Out to Help Out meals to make the most of the scheme. Good food costs mere pocket change on Mondays through to Wednesdays this month when 50pc is wiped off the bill.

Plus, plenty of outlets are doing other deals and even giveaways to bring customers in – so why not make the most of it? Others are gushing about how empty the tube is when they’re travelling to their discounted brunch or dinner; or it’s a near-empty gym that has them elated – the days of queuing for the popular equipment or waiting for the weight set to be returned are a thing of the past.

I’m not usually one to rain on people’s parades, but when I see someone warmly embracing the so-called new normal, I’m desperate to know: does this feel right to you?

The Chancellor paying for half your meal; restaurants and cafes giving away food and drinks for which they used to charge handsomely; the disappearance of commuters and shoppers. It’s not normal, and it’s certainly not sustainable. Very soon, economic reality is going to hit, and it won’t be characterised by meal deals.

No doubt some people know all this and are simply trying to enjoy the eye of the Covid storm: a public health crisis behind us, an economic crisis ahead. But I fear many don’t know what’s coming: having been protected from the effects of locking down the nation, there is about to be a rude awakening.

The UK has experienced its most severe economic contraction in 300 years, with output plummeting 20.4pc in the second quarter of the year.

Many people didn’t feel it, cooped up at home with incomes insured by the Government’s furlough scheme. But this free fall is a matter more in our control than many in government would like to admit.

Britain has the most stringent lockdown rules in Europe to date, with restrictions on reopening, travel, economic and social activity still in place. We’re told our slow exit out of lockdown is by design: a clever strategy so the UK can watch and see what does and does not work on the rest of the continent.

But our shambolic test and trace schemes – which have seen app development and use of contact tracers undermined by centralisation – highlight the extent to which Britain has very little choice about its pace out of lockdown: even if our officials wanted to move faster, they’re in no position yet to comprehensively track and isolate the virus.

Last week, we discovered just how far the UK’s economy fell, but what has not been reflected in the data yet is how many jobs disappeared along with GDP. Nearly 10 million people have been furloughed during the crisis, and while the scheme undoubtedly saved many jobs, millions of people are likely to discover, as it comes to an end, that their role no longer exists.

Cuts are being announced daily – Pizza Express here, Curry’s PC World there. It’s not long before this adds up to mass unemployment. The headline unemployment figures have yet to shift, due to a spike in economic inactivity and fewer people looking for work, but the evidence is there: a 116.8pc increase since March in people claiming an unemployment-related benefit, 7.5 million people away from work in June, with over three million people away for three months or more.

Small businesses say they’ll struggle to pay their employees’ costs without the furlough scheme, especially when operating at limited capacity.

The big corporates – many of which have adapted well to working from home – will be thinking about ways to boost their productivity. That’s likely to mean more technological upgrades, and fewer workers.

The longer we take such a cautious approach, the more our livelihoods, and the incomes of those around us, are put at risk. Good movements were made over the weekend when, after an additional delay, more venues (including theatres, casinos and specialised beauty salons) were allowed to reopen; but they will struggle with continued restrictions on social distancing and capacity like all the rest.

Prof Chris Whitty made clear weeks ago that advisers feel this is roughly as much as the economy can open without seeing a surge in the virus.

That is, a society at the height of summer, with large amounts of capacity in the National Health Service, apparently cannot handle more liberalisation.

If this is indeed the case, then the Government’s mantra of learning to live with the virus could never really have been the plan at all. The original purpose of lockdown – to build capacity in the NHS, and avoid Lombardy-like scenes of hospitals overrun – has been achieved many times over, while our treatment of those who experience severe symptoms has improved quickly.

Yet the Government remains laser-focused on how and when it locks parts of society down again. We still don’t know the criteria for local lockdowns, but it’s becoming easier to guess. When Preston had restrictions tightened, infection rates were on the rise, but hospitalisations for Covid-19 were down to four patients in the whole of the North West on the last day for which data is available. There has been a major shift from building healthcare capacity for when people contract the virus to trying to eradicate every case without a vaccine.

These are not tactics for living with the virus, but rather sledgehammers that wipe out jobs, businesses, life experiences, and if lucky, the outbreak of the virus too. Until the UK builds the infrastructure needed to institute a mass testing and tracing programme, we will continue to haemorrhage jobs and opportunities, causing huge amounts of pain for individuals, and a much longer waiting period to fully recover from the peak of the crisis.

If the end of Eat Out to Help Out has you dreading the autumn, I’m sorry to say there’s far more to fear.

It doesn’t matter how good your half-priced burger tastes – these are bad times, made worse by the decision to downgrade our priority of learning to function, despite the virus. It’s time we started contextualising what empty tables and streets really mean: the more we embrace aspects of the new normal, the more we condemn our society to a poorer way of living.