UK hospitality firms have demanded urgent financial support to deal with a dramatic collapse in bookings which is expected to worsen after Boris Johnson warned people to “think carefully” before socialising over Christmas.
Restaurant owners warned that the crucial Christmas and new year period was "finished", due to growing fears about the omicron variant and the impact of government guidance to work from home where possible.
“Where on earth is the chancellor?” the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) demanded to know, after Mr Johnson made his most solemn statement yet about the threat posed by omicron in a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday afternoon.
The head of NTIA, Michael Kill, said a “sledgehammer” had been taken to the busiest time of year for bars and clubs, adding that businesses had been handed the “worst of both worlds” with the government imposing a “pseudo-lockdown” while refusing to help cover lost earnings.
“It is quite staggering that despite the obvious implications of the government’s rhetoric we haven’t heard a squeak out of HM Treasury,” Mr Kill said, imploring the chancellor to “come out of hiding” and support businesses.
Industry chiefs and unions blasted chancellor Rishi Sunak for failing to announce a package of support for the hospitality sector, such as the furlough scheme, after health chiefs warned the public to cut back on socialising amid omicron fears.
Meanwhile, Mr Sunak has been in California on a four-day official trip – The Mirror revealed on Wednesday evening.
The chancellor was accused of going “missing in action”, the newspaper reported, by the Trades Union Congress – whose general secretary Frances O’Grady called on him to announce immediate measures to help workers and firms in the hardest hit hospitality, leisure and arts sectors.
HM Treasury spokesperson told The Independent the chancellor “is in the US on a long-planned trip conducting government business”.
The need for those measures became increasingly apparent as new figures revealed a record daily total of Covid cases due to the omicron variant.
More than 78,000 new Covid cases were recorded on Tuesday, with infections and hospitalisations expected to surge significantly higher. Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), warned that case numbers could reach “staggering” levels in the next few days.
Meanwhile, Professor Chris Whitty said claims that omicron is a “mild” variant need to be “treated with really serious caution” and that hospitalisations could reach the same levels as in the delta wave.
However, the government stopped short of enforcing tougher public health restrictions amid a growing rebellion of Tory MPs who oppose measures perceived as restricting civil liberties.
Mr Johnson instead sought to persuade people to limit contact. “What we are saying is think carefully before you go, what kind of an event is it, are you likely to meet people who are vulnerable, are you going to meet loads of people you haven't met before, and get a test, make sure there's ventilation, wear a mask on transport,” he said.
Even before the prime minister’s plea, hospitality industry leaders warned they had seen sales evaporate during what would have been the busiest week of the year.
“Christmas is finished for us,” said Ratnesh Bagdai, co-founder of Brindisa, a chain of tapas restaurants in London.
“This would have been the busiest week of the year. Now, we are effectively already in lockdown, even if we aren't officially.”
Around two-thirds of bookings for this week have been cancelled, costing the business as much as £100,000. Hundreds of customers rang up on Monday morning to cancel tables for Christmas parties and family get-togethers after Mr Johnson’s address to the nation on Sunday, Mr Bagdai said.
"I can't believe how quickly London has emptied, particularly the West End. Business has gone off a cliff."
He said he was frustrated at the lack of warning from government and called for financial support, adding: “The way it's been handled has been damaging in all respects.”
Data from restaurant booking platform Opentable shows bookings had been well above 2019 levels but have fallen back sharply in the past two weeks. Trade body UKHospitality estimates revenues across the industry will be down 40 per cent in December.
At Heaney’s restaurant in Cardiff, owner Tommy Heaney saw a “massive increase in cancellations” this week and several larger bookings dwindled to two or three people, he said.
Cancellation of a large concert nearby had also prompted people to pull out of their restaurant bookings, he said.
Mr Heaney echoed frustrations felt across the hospitality industry about unclear guidance and lack of warning from ministers.
“It’s the uncertainty that is the worst thing. I can’t plan, I don’t know what to buy in. I need to keep a roof over my head and the most important thing is looking after my staff,” he said.
Restaurant owners in Cardiff have been discussing rumours that the Welsh government plans to introduce a circuit-breaker lockdown to slow Covid transmission and prevent health services being overwhelmed.
Christmas trade is crucial for many pubs, bars and restaurants to support them through the typically lean months of January and February.
“We understand the need to put people’s health first but we’ve been through lockdown and reopening, lockdown and reopening. There’s only so long that businesses can stay viable,” Mr Heaney said.
“We’ve had very little support from government this time around, no furlough, and we need to somehow cover these losses. There’s only so many times you can keep bouncing back.”