Restaurants across Britain fear a sharp drop in customers on Tuesday after the government’s generous coronavirus giveaway come to an end.
The Eat Out to Help Out plan, at an estimated cost of £600 million (Dh2.94 billion/$802.2m) cost to the taxpayer, has led customer numbers to surge at restaurants hit by months of lockdown.
The plan was introduced four weeks ago giving a state-funded discount of 50 per cent, up to £10, on meals eaten in restaurants between Mondays and Wednesdays in August.
The hospitality sector has been among the hardest hit by coronavirus, with 80 per cent closed during lockdown and 1.4 million chefs and waiters on unpaid leave in April.
While some commentators questioned the move announced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, it has proved a major success by reviving consumer confidence in going out and spending.
With 84,000 outlets signed up to the scheme, claims have been made for more than 64 million meals in the first three weeks, the Treasury said.
The discount scheme applied to sit-in meals and soft drinks throughout August, with no limit to the number of times it could be used.
Families have taken full advantage, making several visits to restaurant, with some suggesting they had saved £500 in the month.
“This week we've done breakfast, dinner, breakfast, dinner,” said on diner visiting Bournemouth. “We probably would not have gone out as much without it.”
The OpenTable website reported that there were 106 per cent more diners last Tuesday than the same day in 2019.
Research by the food and drink consultancy CGA showed that by the third week, food sales were 15 per cent higher than the same period a year ago.
Sales from Thursday to Sunday also rose although remained lower than 2019.
“This scheme has been an overwhelming success,” said Craig Beaumont, of the Federation for Small Businesses.
“We’ve seen the behaviour change, we’ve seen people enjoying their local small businesses safely and we've seen our high streets beginning to reinvigorate.”
Trade body UK Hospitality has called for the programme to be extended.
Restaurant owners saying the biggest worry will be in October and November, when three months of rent will be due and autumn weather will mean less outside dining.
Many people are still working at home rather than commuting into central city offices, so restaurants in London are likely to suffer.
But British government debt now stands at close to £2 trillion, and there is speculation that taxes might have to rise.
The Treasury remains adamant that the restaurant discounts will end on 1 September.
Mr Sunak thanked diners “who have fallen back in love with their local”, as well as chefs and waiters who had worked tirelessly “helping to protect 1.8 million jobs in the hospitality sector”.
“The scheme reminded us why we as a nation love dining out and I urge diners to maintain the momentum to help continue our economic recovery,” he said.
The Treasury has estimated the cost at £500m but the scheme’s success means this could rise to more than £600m.
Some restaurant chains say they will continue the discount for another month without government support.