Pubs and restaurants have condemned the Chancellor’s “silence” over support measures for businesses after mass cancellations amid a surge in Omicron Covid cases.
England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said the public should be considering “de-prioritising” certain social events in order to ensure they can visit family at Christmas.
Fears of the highly transmissible Omicron variant have triggered waves of cancellations, with a drop in footfall particularly acute in London, hospitality bosses said.
Business owners said they were feeling a sense of ‘deja vu’, recalling the first weeks of the pandemic when the government urged the public to not visit pubs and bars, but did not immediately introduce financial support to make up for the loss of trade.
The Prime Minister said on Thursday that the government stance was not for the public to cancel any Christmas bookings or parties. He said they should be cautious and take a rapid Covid test.
However, alarm over skyrocketing Omicron infections this close to Christmas has put off many punters.
Tim Foster, Yummy Pub Company boss, said the last week of trade in central London matched March 2020 levels.
One site saw hundreds of cancellations on Wednesday, with only five covers left, despite being fully booked a few weeks ago.
What’s more, the boss of Greene King, one of the country’s largest pub chains, said it was seeing like for like sales down 50 to 70 per cent on 2019 levels in parts of the capital.
“The last few days have shown customer confidence is fragile,” Nick Mackenzie said, according to a report in pub trade title The Morning Advertiser.
Another restaurant said they were experiencing levels of trade usually seen in January, traditionally one of hospitality’s toughest months.
Businesses had hoped that a booming Christmas would help them to recover from the losses of the pandemic thus far.
Bosses have called for a delay on proposed rises to VAT and business rates, as well as the return of pandemic support measures like furlough and grants.
The Chancellor said he would “continue to work with industry leaders over the coming days” and met with bosses virtually in the US to discuss their concerns over haemorrhaging trade.
When asked about the possibility of future financial support, health minister Gillian Keegan told the BBC’s Today programme that the Treasury “keeps everything under review”.
The trade is readying to lose out on £297m in trade this Christmas, according to the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA).
A quarter of publicans were considering letting staff go, according to the British Institute of Innkeeping. Almost 80 per cent of bosses said trade had dipped significantly below 2019 levels.