Restaurants in Norfolk and Waveney claimed almost £12m from the government on more than two and a half million meals in the summer's Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

Newly released figures from the HMRC show the total figure claimed back was £11,886,000 for 2.27 million meals.

In August, the government announced the scheme in a bid to give struggling restaurants and pubs a lifeline, offering people half price meals for three days a week up to a discount of £10.

It gave the hospitality sector a welcome boost which, for many, has helped them survive the tougher winter months.

In tourist areas, though, its popularity, coupled with a rise in staycations, led to overwhelming demand. The initiative has also since been criticised as having been a factor behind a rise in Covid cases in early autumn.

Across Norfolk and Waveney, 1,102 restaurants signed up to Eat Out to Help Out, with the biggest average saving per meal found in King's Lynn and West Norfolk (£5.50) and Broadland (£5.41).

For Alex Brake, of the Bird in Hand at Wreningham, the offer was a lifeline.

He said: "In hindsight it was essential. There's no two ways about it. We would be a in a dire situation if it wasn't for that.

"The fact that Eat Out to Help out was rolled out has saved our business. It enabled us to build up reserves in our bank accounts to weather the storm that came after that."

Restaurants in East Suffolk claimed back the most, £2.5m for 461,000 meals, followed by £2.06m for 407,000 meals in North Norfolk.

The lowest sums claimed back were £611,000 in Breckland and £885,000 in South Norfolk. Elsewhere, £1.08m was claimed in Broadland, £1.51 in Great Yarmouth, £1.68m in King's Lynn and West Norfolk and £1.6m in Norwich.

On average, a restaurant in North Norfolk was able to get £12,300 from the government, the figures show, and £13,900 in Broadland.

Breckland had the fewest restaurants take part - at 76 - as well as the lowest amount claimed back per restaurant (£8,000) and lowest average discount on a meal (£4.46).

The data only covers businesses with fewer than 25 outlets, meaning the figures - including the nationwide number of more than 100 million meals being discounted - are likely to be much higher.

Eat Out To Help Out Scheme Explained

Many chain restaurants with large numbers of branches took part in the scheme, including McDonald's, Burger King and Costa Coffee.

Since autumn, Eat Out to Help Out has come under fire for potentially adding to the spread of coronavirus.

Research from the University of Warwick suggested in October the scheme may have contributed to between 8pc to 17pc of new clusters, something the Treasury has denied.

Paul Hunter, a medical professor at the University of East Anglia, said the deal may have contributed to the spread, but was not the sole factor behind increased transmission rates.

"There's no single thing that will be the only factor to make the disease come or go," he said.

"There is evidence that the Eat Out to Help Out contributed to increased cases in early September. Most epidemiologists believe [it] did contribute to increased transmission, but by no means was it the only thing that contributed."

Currently, pubs and restaurants have been closed since Tier 4 was introduced prior to the third lockdown. They are now only able to offer takeaways or, in the case of alcohol, deliveries.

A Treasury spokesman credited Eat Out to Help Out with protecting jobs across the UK and bringing back 400,000 hospitality workers from furlough.

The Treasury spokesman said its analysis of the HMRC figures confirms take-up of the Eat Out to Help scheme "does not correlate with incidence of Covid regionally – and indeed where it does the relationship is negative".