For Rishi Sunak, the blindingly obvious has ‘now become clear’

Tom Peck
·4-min read
Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak delivers an economic update in London (Reuters)
Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak delivers an economic update in London (Reuters)

It has, you will be relieved to know, now “become clear” to Rishi Sunak that, quite often, people go to pubs and restaurants with people they don’t live with.

He had this moment of revelation at the dispatch box of the House of Commons, while giving his 18th de facto Budget of the last three weeks. It is arguably unfortunate that the “Winter Economy Plan” he announced four weeks ago has now had to be scrapped, two whole months before winter has technically begun.

But these are fast moving times and we can’t criticise Sunak, or indeed anyone, for doing their best to keep up with them.

And so here he was, announcing more support for pubs and restaurants in tier 2 of the Covid restrictions. Which is to say places that haven’t been told to close, and so aren’t eligible for much in the way of government support, but are only allowed to serve groups of people who all live together, and who are just not turning up.

Given several million people, including the entire city of Manchester, have been in tier 2 essentially for months, one would hope it might have become “clear” to the chancellor somewhat earlier, instead of almost exactly a week after the same restrictions were imposed on London, and so suddenly he and everybody else actually noticed them.

But it’s especially disappointing because, as you will certainly know, Sunak is a great champion of the hospitality industry.

When Sunak launched his “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, he was gently mocked for his somewhat cheesy staged photo opportunity, in which he waited tables in a local Wagamama.

It was, at that point, breathlessly pointed out to his detractors that actually, actually, actually, the chancellor wasn’t just some millionaire (and quite possibly billionaire) Tory. Actually, actually actually, actually, he used to work as a waiter in an Indian restaurant. Which is true, he did, for around three months, just after completing a quarter of a million pound’s worth of schooling at Winchester College, and before going off to Oxford.

Whenever it is pointed out, as it is with increasing regularity, that the chancellor found around £552m of taxpayers money to subsidise half-price McDonald’s for people who could afford them anyway, and yet he is unable to find less than a tenth of that to provide a daily meal in the school holidays for the country’s poorest children, Sunak has his go-to comeback.

And said comeback has not had another airing at the dispatch box of the House of Commons.

Eat Out to Help Out was so important to Sunak because the hospitality industry means a lot to him, he explained, yet again. It employs 2 million people, who are among the poorest paid people in the country. They are disproportionately women and ethnic minorities, and actually, half a billion pounds was a cheap price to pay to save that sector from near destitution.

All of which is true, and yet, despite being little more than a humble Winchester head boy turned junior curry house waiter himself, he had somehow not foreseen what absolutely anybody who’s ever been to a pub not merely could have told him, but actively have been.

As he announced his new measures, revealing to the grateful masses yet another hitherto undiscovered expanse of the magic money forest, he also reassured those listening that these are all just “temporary measures.” That, don’t worry, all this will pass. It will not last forever.

Of course, how long it does last for is very much anybody’s guess, as Sunak serves a prime minister who accidentally made clear yesterday that once a region goes into tier 3, he doesn’t actually have a clue how it goes about getting out of it again, because the restrictions it imposes aren’t enough to actually suppress the virus by the amount that would be required to leave it.

This may read like some sort of clever Catch-22. It’s not. It’s just a soul-crushingly stupid cock-up that was entirely eminently foreseeable. There is, of course, a pattern emerging. It became clear some time ago. One day it might become clear to the people that matter. We can but hope. There’s certainly nothing else we can do.

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