NICOLA Sturgeon has suggested the Chancellor’s £180m scheme to get people back into pubs and restaurants with cheap meals may have helped spread the coronavirus.

Rishi Sunak last week denied his Eat Out to Help Out scheme had made the pandemic worse, calling the accusation “simplistic”.

However in an interview for ITV’s Peston tonight, the First Minister was asked if the scheme had been a bad idea.

She said: “I think with hindsight we can say all sorts of things, maybe it would have been better if it hadn't happened.”

The Treasury estimates more than 100m meals were east under the scheme, which gave diners a 50 per cent discount on meals and soft drinks of up to £10 on certain days of the week last month.

Although regarded as a lifeline by a struggling hospitality sector, the scheme was followed by a rise in Covid cases.

At a Downing Street press conference last week, Mr Sunak defended it against claims it had contributed to the transmission of the virus.

He said: “In terms of the spread of the virus, if you see what’s happening in our country... we’re following similar paths to other countries in Europe.

“So I think it’s probably simplistic to look at any one thing. 

“What’s happening here is similar to what’s happening in many other countries.

“There are lots of things going on at the same time towards the last few weeks and as we get into a season for respiratory illnesses so there’s going to be lots of different factors at play as to why the virus is acting in the way it is.”

But Ms Sturgeon said: “I know that that scheme was about trying to incentivise people to help the economy, and we can't be blind to the economic impact here.

“But we do know, and I think it's really important that if there are two key drivers in recent weeks, obviously we've got university clusters just now, but in recent weeks we've got two key drivers, and it's about the people coming together.

“Which is why in Scotland we're asking people… not to visit other people's houses right now and that's really difficult, but also in hospitality settings, where people are coming together and mingling." 

Scottish Tory economy spokesman Maurice Golden said:  "Anyone who wants to know if the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was worthwhile should ask the pubs and restaurants that were ready to close their doors for good, and all the people working in those pubs and restaurants who were going to lose their jobs.”