The Eat Out to Help Out scheme caused a "significant" rise in new infections, researchers have claimed, despite Public Health England figures showing sustained, low levels of transmission in hospitality venues.
UKHospitality has said there are "huge question marks" around the data presented by Dr Thiemo Fetzer of the University of Warwick, which claims between 8% and 17% of infection clusters could be attributed to the scheme, with areas experiencing a higher uptake recording a decline in new infections the week after it ended.
In response the Treasury has commented: "We do not recognise these figures – which as the study itself admits, are 'back-of-the-envelope' calculations."
Dr Fetzer presented the calculations after analysing data including how infection rates were impacted on days with heavy rainfall during lunch and dinner hours, where there was a lower take up of the discount scheme.
He said: "This strongly suggests that the link between Eat Out to Help Out and new Covid-19 infections is causal: when people were not dining out as part of the scheme there were fewer new cases of the virus.
"Eat Out to Help Out may in the end have been a false economy: one that subsidised the spread of the pandemic into autumn and contributed to the start of the second wave. Alternative policy measures, such as extending the furlough scheme, increasing statutory sick pay and supporting low income households through expanding free school meals may well prove to be far more cost effective than demand-stimulating measures that encourage economic activities which actively cause Covid-19 to spread."
The study flies in the face of UKHospitality research, which examined infection alerts across 14 weeks, and found just 0.0003% of customers had notified businesses of Covid-19 cases. Public Health England data has also consistently shown that transmissions attributed to hospitality are below 5%, significantly lower than those seen in schools, workplaces, hospitals and care homes.