Tuesday 9 August 2022

How Covid-19 changed the takeaway landscape

Posted by Callum Bradford, Research Associate, Teesside University

During the Covid pandemic, you may have seen the memes for how there are two types of people during lockdown. First there were those who used lockdown as an excuse to exercise more, eat well, and generally take care of themselves in a manner of which they had never had the time for previously. Then there were those who out of sheer boredom, decided to drink and order takeaway on more days than not as it was ‘something to do’.

As you can probably guess, I very much fell into the second category.

To my detriment, takeaways typically sell food which is relatively cheap, high in calories, low in nutritional value, and (annoyingly) very appetising; all delivered to your front door in a matter of minutes. Now I don’t want to come across as anti-takeaway, or anti-business, there is a place in our society for unhealthy food, nor do I blame anyone else for my questionable dietary choices. However, I’m sure most of us agree that we can have too much of a good thing at the impairment of not only our own health, but also the health of the high-street.

Apparently I’m not the only one who is too easily tempted by takeaways, with local governments implementing planning regulations to further prevent this takeover-of-takeaways, in the knowledge that our willpower is often lacking. You’re likely familiar with some of the rules already in place, such as no takeaways within 200m of a school, or that most restaurants and pubs can only provide takeaway food on an ‘ancillary’ basis.

However, with the Covid-19 lockdowns pubs and restaurants lost their ability to trade. In an attempt to combat the potential loss of business, the government introduced new temporary measures allowing these businesses to trade as takeaways, without needing to apply for planning permission. In other words, my options for takeaway just increased threefold, and by ordering-in I was ‘doing my bit’ to keep businesses open.

As we were now stuck indoors, every occasion was now an excuse for a takeaway; Birthday? Takeaway. Passed Uni? Takeaway. Anniversary? Slightly fancier takeaway with cocktails (highly recommend).

With these temporary regulations in mind, we consulted with various planners, public health leads, and environmental health officers from across the North East, to better understand how these regulations were impacting their roles, alongside any public health trepidations they may have (if my diet alone wasn’t enough cause for concern).

The main theme throughout our conversations was an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. Covid had an unprecedented impact on the priorities of local authorities. Because of this, they could not organise the infrastructure needed to identify how many businesses were choosing to trade as takeaways. Even today as we slowly return to a sense of normality, the role of collecting this data appears to be unassigned as authorities play catch-up on work lost to Covid. Therefore, as you can imagine, gauging the impact of these regulations became very challenging and speculative. There was also uncertainty around how and when these regulations would end, or what elected members planned to do (if anything) about the potential long-term consequences to health.

Surprisingly, the main finding from our research had little to do with the regulations themselves, but rather how Covid has accelerated change in the takeaway landscape. During Covid, we all developed new habits (for better or worse); one of which was the use of online delivery services such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats.

Despite the temp Covid regulations now ending, with these delivery services, many businesses that could not originally offer takeaway now can, and local authorities have limited ability to prevent them from doing so since they aren’t technically providing the deliveries themselves. A quick search on Deliveroo in Middlesbrough for example offers me delivery for Burger King, Starbucks, and Creams Cafe. None of these options are well-known as takeaways, but all now provide the delivery of unhealthy food. And although these services were technically available pre-Covid, the pandemic has led to a huge increase in their popularity, allowing for more unhealthy-food options and the changing of shopping habits. There are also traffic implications. Have you ever tried to walk through Liverpool city centre during lunch hour? Attempting to dodge Deliveroo riders on their bikes as you stroll through town is quite the experience.

To summarise, the Covid pandemic had an unparalleled impact on public health professionals, to the extent that the government implementing new regulations regarding takeaways was considered low priority. Ambiguity surrounding the impact of these regulations remains, with the ending of the regulations becoming somewhat nullified given the rise of online delivery.

In conclusion I offer some advice. if you’re trying to eat healthier, writing a blog post on takeaways whilst doing ‘research’ on Deliveroo, might not be the wisest of ideas – speaking from experience.

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