Patriotism is having a weird moment. There’s always an underlying hum of it, out there, in the meadows and the villages – that’s why we have the Last Night of the Proms and RAF flyovers – but in the midst of a crisis we bump it up a bit. Look back at the Covid-19 timeline, and tell me the crisis hasn’t made patriotism leap out at odd angles: that “we’ll meet again” vlog from the Queen, the wave of blue pride when Boris bravely defeated the virus, banging a pan for the NHS, VE Day’s curious Conga for Veterans! campaign. And now the latest way to help your country out is: going down to Pizza Express, ordering as many appetisers as possible, enjoying a main meal between Monday and Wednesday (during the month of August only), and getting a crisp tenner per-head off your bill. “Eat out to help out,” they say. For God, for Queen, for country.
Obviously I will be doing this because I love bargains, food, and swindling the government out of minute amounts of money, but I won’t be happy about it. Eat out to help out has successfully done three things: inspired a lot of childish sniggering, made a weird high street martyr out of Rishi Sunak (the Wetherspoon’s menu now boasts “Sunak’s Specials” after his changes to VAT), and given the country the illusion of a generous gift from the government but without the reality of it.
Like, yes: the hospitality industry is one of many in crisis, and there should be efforts made to protect it, both culturally (do you really want to spend the rest of your life eating at the only five chains big enough to survive this pandemic without assistance?) and economically (the industry has a canny knack of “employing people” in “jobs”), but I think we do need to be a bit careful about overstating what is, essentially, a government-sanctioned Meerkat Meals offer.
I hate bringing numbers into things – it’s gauche – but a quick crunch of them does make the eat out campaign look slightly less than the gilded gift it’s being presented as. In letters between Sunak and the HMRC boss, Jim Harra, it was estimated the plan would cost the government roughly £500m, which sounds good if it was, say, a EuroMillions win, but starts to look less good the more you stretch it across an entire population, coming in at about £7.50 per person. This is about the same you spend that one lunchtime per month when you go a little bit bonkers at Pret.
One free Pret a month sounds nice, and thank you for it, but I’m not going to draw hearts around a photo of Sunak and stick it on my bedroom wall just yet. Especially in the wake of the much-mooted £500 high street voucher, a mythical economy stimulus suggested by the Resolution Foundation that a lot of people had already spent in their head before finding out it wasn’t happening.
The government has spent the last couple of weeks championing pubs as a triumphant symbol of our freedom and our pride (“Please give Tim Martin money again! For the economy!”), so maybe there’s an analogy in there: this is the public-spending equivalent of tacking a single bag of crisps on to a round of drinks and asking everyone at the table to chip in 10p to cover the costs. Thanks for the McCoy’s deep-ridge, obviously, but you’re not getting a conga.
When a Rees-Mogg chips in on the food poverty debate
On the other side of the food-as-politics spectrum, someone allowed Jacob Rees-Mogg’s sister, Annunziata, to talk about food poverty this week, tweeting as she did words to the effect of: “how can food poverty exist when cheap vegetables exist?” “Tesco 1kg potatoes = 83p, 950g own brand chips = £1.35”, Rees-Mogg wrote, in response to a tweet about Boris Johnson’s obesity plans, which obviously led to her getting ratioed to kingdom come.
There are various arguments against making the poor subsist on bags of potatoes: basic empathy, scurvy, the time it might take to peel and slice a kilogram of potatoes in between two or more jobs, the reality of fuel poverty meaning the energy and pan of oil it might take to fry said potatoes being beyond a soul-crushing weekly budget, etc. But crucially, the potato argument has never, ever been made by someone who’s had their card declined in a supermarket for a purchase of less than £2. Good that the government is firing money at the right end of the table, anyway: £10 off if you’ve got enough money to go to a restaurant, and if you don’t, well, I don’t know. Surely the food banks have potatoes?
Fun (not fun) finding from the London School of Economics this week, which found that young people living in London flatshares had on average 9.3 sq metres of private space (or, roughly the equivalent of a small garage) with 37% sleeping and working in their bedrooms.
This is before we even think about the traditional flatshare bugbears that infringe on the ability to work: the smoothie-encrusted blender cup in the kitchen, four damp laundry dryers in the front room because everyone decided to do a white load that day, Someone’s Silent Boyfriend Who Is Here All the Time and Should Really Be Paying Rent. I know there’s a pretty simple solution to housing inequality in London – “move out of London” – but right now it’s not exactly as simple as that.
A lot of companies are umming and ahhing about how and when they will reopen their offices, and what the future of working from home might look like. Until then, we are all squashed up on our beds, backs at acute angles throughout eight hours of Zoom calls each day, waiting for middle manager emperors to decide which way up to turn their thumb.
The perfect outcome from this pandemic would be a new WFH culture that allows a widespread evacuation of London and the long overdue establishment of three or more major cities as equally central “hubs”. But before that can happen, a fleshy wedge of company decision-makers – who have been reluctant to let anyone leave their desks before 5pm since, well, jobs were invented – have to agree to make it happen. We’ll be in our bedrooms for the next two years, then.
• Joel Golby is a writer for the Guardian and VICE, and the author of Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant