By Andrew MacAskill
LONDON (Reuters) - The British government's "Eat out to help out" discount scheme to boost spending at restaurants, cafes and pubs over the summer helped spread the coronavirus and contributed to a second wave of infections, according to a new study.
For the month of August, the government offered diners up a 50% discount of up to 10 pounds ($13.03) per head on meals between Mondays and Wednesdays to kick-start the economy and encourage people to spend money again after the pandemic lockdown.
Between 8% and 17% of newly detected infection clusters could be linked to the scheme during that period, according to the study by the University of Warwick. Areas where there was a high uptake of the scheme saw an increase in new infections about a week after it started, the study found.
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Meanwhile, the research said those same areas saw a decline in new infections a week the discount offer finished.
Britain's finance ministry said it did not recognise the findings of the study.
"Many other European counterparts have experienced an uptick in cases - irrespective of whether similar measures for the hospitality industry have been introduced," a spokesman for Treasury said.
Thiemo Fetzer, a professor of economics who published the study, said: "The Eat-Out-to-Help-out scheme, hailed as an economic cure for the ailing sector, may have substantially worsened the disease."
The research highlights the difficult challenge balancing public health and economic growth during this crisis. The government subsidised about 100 million meals in August and the scheme was so effective some businesses continued offering the half-price discounts even after the government funding ended.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this month defended the scheme for helping to protect millions of jobs in the hospitality industry but conceded that it may have had an impact on infections.
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(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Editing by William Maclean)