Cafes, pubs and restaurants have submitted claims covering more than 35 million meals under the first two weeks of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, according to the Treasury.
The programme, which offers diners at participating venues 50% off their meal up to a maximum of £10, is running every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday throughout August to encourage support for the hospitality sector – savaged by the coronavirus lockdown.
Business owners claim the discount back from the government.
The Treasury said the number of people to have benefited from the scheme so far was equivalent to half the UK’s population and far more than 35 million covers were likely to be registered because it believed many more claims were yet to be submitted.
It leaves the cost to the taxpayer at up to £350m to date – given the £10 discount limit per meal.
Officials have estimated the scheme will cost £500m but prove invaluable in preventing job losses across a sector so crucial to the UK economy.
More than 85,000 sites are now participating in the project.
The vast majority would have been forced to abruptly close in March at the start of the UK’s lockdown.
About 80% of hospitality firms were not trading in April, with 1.4 million workers furloughed.
The Treasury has said it was the worst-affected sector until 4 July when sites in England were allowed to reopen to dine-in customers.
Research published last week suggested that while Eat Out to Help Out had dented demand on the days it was not available, a surge in trade from the scheme during its first week had clearly outweighed the lull.
Despite the trading boost for restaurants, the chancellor is under growing pressure to extend his wider support schemes for businesses and the salaries of their workers as the furlough scheme begins to wind down ahead of its end in October.
Official figures last week confirmed the lockdown had plunged the UK into its worst recession on record despite a pick-up in growth during May and June as the hibernation of the economy began to ease.
The Bank of England recently predicted the UK’s jobless rate could peak at 7.5% from a current 3.9%.
Rishi Sunak said of the Eat Out to Help Out programme so far: “Today’s figures show that Britain is eating out to help out – with at least 35 million meals served up in the first two weeks alone, that is equivalent to over half of the UK taking part and supporting local jobs in the hospitality sector.
“To build back better we must protect as many jobs as possible, that is why I am urging all registered businesses to make the most of this by claiming back today – it’s free, simple and pays out within five working days.”