This is how many enjoyed Eat Out to Help Out in Preston
Hundreds of thousands of meals paid for the Government in city
Diners in Preston bought more than 400,000 discounted meals through the Government's month-long Eat Out to Help Out scheme, figures reveal.
For three days a week in August, people could buy a half price meal at outlets that signed up to the scheme and save up to £10 per person.
The initiative, which saw people flock to pubs, restaurants and cafés across the UK, was largely hailed a success by the hospitality sector but has since been criticised over claims it encouraged further spread of the coronavirus.
New data from HM Revenue and Customs shows around 409,000 cut price meals were claimed at 162 participating businesses in Preston.
It meant diners saved £5.46 per meal on average.
Businesses in the area claimed back £2.2 million from the Government through the scheme at an average of £13,800 per outlet.
They were among 6,342 cafés, restaurants and pubs to take part across the North West, and 59,981 across the UK as a whole.
However, the HMRC data only covers businesses with fewer than 25 outlets meaning the true figures may be much higher, with many big-name restaurant chains also taking part in the scheme over the summer.
More than 100 million discounted meals were eaten across the UK under the programme to boost the economy by encouraging consumers to dine out after months of being told to stay indoors.
A Treasury spokesman credited Eat Out to Help Out with protecting jobs across the UK and bringing back 400,000 hospitality workers from furlough.
But research from the University of Warwick suggested the scheme may have contributed to between 8% and 17% of newly detected Covid-19 clusters – a claim denied by the Treasury.
At the time, Dr Thiemo Fetzer, who led the research, said: "‘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."
And while the Government has not announced when bars and restaurants will open again following the third national lockdown, some experts have warned they should stay shut until May to avoid another "bump" in transmission.
The Treasury spokesman said its analysis of the HMRC figures confirms take-up of the Eat Out to Help scheme "does not correlate with incidence of Covid regionally – and indeed where it does the relationship is negative."
However, this analysis has not been published by the department.