Restaurant meals will be subsidised by the Government as part of a radical £30 billion rescue package for jobs and the economy, Rishi Sunak announced on Wednesday.
The Treasury will pay half the cost of eating out, up to a maximum of £10 per head, to tempt "cautious" diners back to restaurants and pubs, which employ 1.8 million people. The scheme will apply from Mondays to Wednesdays for the whole of August.
The Chancellor also cut VAT on hospitality and leisure, temporarily abolished stamp duty on most properties and pledged grants of up to £10,000 for green home improvements.
With the Government's furlough scheme coming to an end in October, Mr Sunak announced that firms would be given a £1,000 "job retention bonus" for every furloughed employee still in work on Jan 31.
The Chancellor appealed to the nation's "fortitude and endurance" to go out and start spending again after 18 years of economic growth was wiped out in just two months of coronavirus lockdown.
Despite the eye-catching cash giveaways, the primary aim of his mini-Budget was to avert the danger of mass unemployment as a result of the deepest recession in generations.
Mr Sunak said avoiding "significant" job losses was "the most urgent challenge we now face" and, despite Wednesday's measures taking the total spent on dealing with the virus to £188 billion, stressed that "the job has only just begun".
He claimed his measures would protect more than 12 million jobs and create hundreds of thousands more.
The biggest giveaway was a £9.4 billion fund to encourage businesses to keep on the 9.4 million people furloughed in lockdown by paying firms £1,000 for every furloughed employee they retain beyond January.
The Chancellor said: "People need to know that, although hardship lies ahead, no one will be left without hope."
After months of Government tension between the need to protect lives and the need to protect livelihoods, his summer economic update marked the moment when the pendulum swung decisively towards the economy.
The biggest surprise was an "eat out to help out" scheme, with the Government paying 50 per cent of the cost of meals out, up to £10 per head, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August, and no limit on the number of half-price meals people can have.
It is expected to cost £500 million – enough to subsidise 50 million meals – but could cost more if it proves popular. Mr Sunak said the measure "has never been tried before in the UK" but that "this moment is unique – we need to be creative".
He added: "I know people are cautious about going out, but we wouldn't have lifted the restrictions if we didn't think we could do so safely."
However, the policy caused tension with health bosses who fear it could fuel obesity – a key risk factor in the danger of death from Covid-19.
The discount will be open to all restaurants that apply to join the scheme, including fast food outlets, and comes just a year after ministers proposed a ban on junk food two-for-one deals.
A source close to Mr Sunak said: "We are not going to moralise or discriminate against people who work in certain types of restaurants. This is about protecting jobs. The Chancellor does believe in moderation."
VAT on restaurant meals, accommodation, cinema tickets and entry to attractions such as theme parks will be cut from 20 per cent to five per cent from July 15 until Jan 12 at a cost of £4.1 billion.
Mr Sunak confirmed that stamp duty would be reduced to zero on the first £500,000 of the price of main homes, effective immediately and until March 31 – longer than the six months many had predicted.
He said property transactions were down 50 per cent year on year and house prices had fallen for the first time in eight years, so he was granting the tax holiday in order that people would feel "confident to buy, sell, renovate, move and improve".
Nine out of 10 people moving house will pay no stamp duty, saving £4,500 on average, at a cost of £3.8 billion to the Treasury.
Up to 650,000 homeowners in the least energy-efficient homes will be eligible for grants of up to £5,000 to cover two-thirds of the cost of improvements such as insulation and double glazing, though the poorest families will be given up to £10,000 to cover the entire cost of improvements.
Mr Sunak said the move would cut up to £300 off annual bills and reduce carbon by the equivalent of 270,000 cars being taken off the road.
The Chancellor also took a swipe at Scottish and Welsh nationalists, pointing out that millions of people across the UK were protected by the Government's economic interventions.
He said: "No nationalist can ignore the undeniable truth – this help has only been possible because we are a United Kingdom."