THE UK Government’s flagship Eat Out to Help Out scheme may have caused a rise in coronavirus infections of up to 17%, new research has suggested.

Dr Thiemo Fetzer, a researcher at the CAGE Research Centre at the University of Warwick, has said that Rishi Sunak’s £522 million idea caused a significant rise in new Covid cases in late summer and accelerated the pandemic into its second wave.

Fetzer said restaurants participating in the scheme, which offered 50% off food and non-alcoholic drinks from Monday to Wednesday, saw a 10-200% increase in custom compared to 2019.

According to the research, 8-17% of the Covid clusters detected in the week after the scheme started could be attributed directly to it.

In areas where many people and restaurants used the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, there were more Covid cases. There were also more cases in places where the weather was better.

Fetzer said the scheme "contributed to community transmission" and "the acceleration of the second wave".

He Sky News: "The UK saw a massive explosion of cases in a way that was not seen in other countries.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson said Eat Out to Help Out saved millions of jobs, but was he right?

"It's that scheme that has helped to bring about an earlier second lockdown and restrictions on the restaurant sector that it was determined to help economically."

The research follows a survey from British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) at the beginning of this month which found the scheme had had a “fairly marginal” impact on the hospitality sector.

Eat Out to Help Out failed to improve the finances of the UK’s hospitality and catering industries, the BCC survey said.

Boris Johnson claimed it had “unquestionably” protected many of the two million jobs in the hospitality sector.

The Prime Minister has previously accepted the scheme may have caused a rise in cases, saying: "In so far as that scheme may have helped to spread the virus, obviously we need to counteract that.”

However, when asked if he had any regrets about the scheme, Sunak told the Sun: "Definitely not. We had an industry that I care deeply about because of employment. It’s over two million people.”

In early September, the i newspaper reported that Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out has cost £522m, and given the government around £250m in financial benefits.

In contrast, the free school meals scheme in England was projected to cost around £20m per week.