The chancellor said the half-price meals out programme, which ran throughout the month of August, was essential in saving the hospitality industry.
In an interview on Sunday, Boris Johnson admitted Eat Out to Help Out may have fuelled the growth in Covid-19 cases seen across the UK in recent months.
“It was very important to keep those jobs going,” he told the BBC. “Insofar as that scheme may have helped to spread the virus, then obviously we need to counteract that and we need to counteract that with the discipline and the measures that we're proposing.”
But speaking ahead of his speech at the online Conservative Party conference on Monday, Mr Sunak said he did not regret launching the scheme, which gave up to £10 off on a total of 100m meals.
“No, no, no, no, definitely not,” he told The Sun. “We had an industry that I care deeply about because of employment. It’s over two million people.”
Eat Out to Help Out – which allowed restaurants and pubs to offer half price food and drink on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with the Treasury settling the difference – proved to be hugely popular.
The state ended up subsidising about 100m meals by the end of the month and the scheme was so effective some businesses continued offering the half-price discounts even when the government funding ended.
As coronavirus cases rose in the weeks following the scheme, criticism has risen, with some suggesting it was unwise for Mr Sunak to be tempting people out of their homes and into packed public spaces.
But the chancellor said there was little evidence the second wave of the pandemic was prompted by Eat Out to Help Out.
He said the South West was the region which took most advantage of the cut-price dinners on offer but was also an area where coronavirus remained at a low rate compared to the rest of the country.
Since the scheme ended, a number of areas put into local lockdowns have imposed restrictions on pubs and restaurants opening in an effort to reverse the rise in Covid-19 cases and a national curfew of 10pm has also been imposed on such venues.
Speaking of the curfew, Mr Sunak said he shared people’s annoyance with the new, harsher measures. “Of course it’s frustrating. I know it’s difficult and wish we didn’t have to do these things.
“It’s one of the measures that we put in place but, you know what, we haven’t closed anything down and that is a good thing.”
However, plans leaked to The Guardian suggest the government is now considering a three-tier lockdown system for England, with the toughest level including a total closure of all hospitality businesses and a ban on all social contact outside of household groups.
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