What is a Scotch egg?

In simpler times, the question had a simple answer: a hard-boiled or soft-boiled egg, shrouded in sausage and breadcrumbs, deep-fried or baked.

But as bars and restaurants reopen across England after a four-week coronavirus lockdown, pubgoers face a more fundamental question about the nature of the popular savory treat: Is it a snack or a whole meal?

The official answer, it appears, depends on who in the government you ask — and when you ask them.

The quintessential menu item has become the unlikely focal point of a debate around coronavirus restrictions in England — and of the British government’s inconsistent messaging amid the pandemic. Under the measures, which go into force on Wednesday, pubs that serve food will be allowed to stay open, and to serve alcohol, but only alongside a “substantial meal.”

So: What is a substantial meal? A Sunday roast and fish and chips seem to fit the bill without question. A packet of prawn cocktail crisps? Though many young Britons might disagree, the government is unlikely to say that makes the cut.

But a Scotch egg, a common treat in pubs up and down the land? That’s where the question gets tricky. Environment Secretary George Eustice told LBC radio on Monday that yes, Scotch eggs were a meal, “if there were table service” in the pub.

The following day, however, the answer became murkier. Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, told LBC radio that he disagreed. “A couple of Scotch eggs is a starter, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Less than an hour later, under intense questioning from television host Piers Morgan, his hard-boiled approach appeared to have softened.

“My own preference when it comes to a substantial meal might be more than just a Scotch egg but that’s because I’m a hearty trencherman,” Gove said during a later appearance on ITV’s “Good Morning Britain.” “The government is relying on people’s common sense,” he said.

But minutes later, he flipped. “A Scotch egg is a substantial meal,” he told ITV News. “I myself would definitely scoff a couple of Scotch eggs if I had the chance, but I do recognize that it is a substantial meal.”

The confusion over the humble food drew howls from British commentators. One dubbed it the case of “Schrodinger’s Scotch egg.” The Daily Telegraph quizzed nutrition experts about whether they thought a Scotch egg was a worthy repast.

“One month to Brexit and the government is trying to work out if a Scotch egg is a starter or a main meal,” tweeted journalist Ian Dunt.

The egg question is hardly a matter of life or death, but following new restrictions to the letter is no laughing matter for small businesses. If they break the rules, they can be fined more than $13,000 or even face closure.

British pubs have already been decimated by the pandemic. There are roughly 37,500 across England, employing hundreds of thousands of workers, and many were surviving on thin margins before the pandemic. Lockdowns and new rules — early closures, restrictions on group sizes — have hit them hard. There are well over 700 British pubs for sale on one website.

Rules could tighten once again. In Wales, which has its own set of rules, pubs have been banned from serving alcohol from Friday onward.

The Scotch egg debate shows the gray area that exists in the English system of restrictions. Scotch eggs vary in size, price and caloric content, but in some pubs they can be had for as little as 2 pounds (about $2.67). There appears to be little in the rules that can stop someone ordering one but not eating it.

One newspaper in Oxford on Wednesday published a list of pubs that sold Scotch eggs for thirsty readers. “The Scotch egg thing is ridiculous — but if the government says we need Scotch eggs, we will get Scotch eggs,” the owner of one pub told the Oxford Mail.

Britain’s government, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has struggled with its messaging throughout the pandemic. Despite expensive efforts to dampen the impact of the virus, the country is among the worst hit in the world, both in terms of confirmed deaths and the toll on the economy.

One attempt to protect Britain’s lucrative hospitality business, a summer plan that saw the government split the check with diners, was found in a study to have accidentally helped spread the virus.

The pandemic pressure may have expanded Britons’ waistbands. A study released Tuesday by Aarhus University in Denmark and funded in part by EIT Food found that people in Britain consumed more convenience food and alcohol than those living anywhere else in Europe during the coronavirus lockdowns.

It was not clear how many Scotch eggs they ate.

Jennifer Hassan in London contributed to this report.