Chancellor Rishi Sunak will return earlier than planned from a work trip to California to hold crunch talks with hospitality chiefs struggling with plummeting demand due to Omicron – as pictures showed how town centre nightlife has taken a battering.
Pictures from Leeds, London and Newcastle showed just a smattering of revellers enjoying festive nights out yesterday, just a day before Black Eye Friday.
Cities across the country were eerily quiet this morning too as commuters continued to stay away. The congestion level reported by TomTom in London at 8am was 40 per cent – the lowest level all week.
Traffic levels at the same period today were 33 per cent in Birmingham, 36 per cent in Manchester, 40 per cent in Liverpool, 34 per cent in Sheffield, 46 per cent in Leeds and 28 per cent in Newcastle.
Mr Sunak had been in the US on a ‘long-planned’ Government trip to meet tech bosses but his timing has attracted criticism.
He met hospitality leaders yesterday via Zoom but had to miss one roundtable event because it clashed with a scheduled call with US healthcare bosses, prompting one of the British executives to quip to the FT that he was too busy drinking ‘organic kale smoothies’.
Mr Sunak told CNN he is holding in-person talks today after cutting short his visit. ‘I understand this is a concerning time for business leaders across the country,’ he said. ‘I’ve been in touch with industry business leaders and it’s why I’ve curtailed my trip and will be leaving earlier tonight.’
The Chancellor insisted ministers were not telling people to cancel their Christmas events, adding: ‘The situation is very different to what we’ve done and encountered before. We’re not telling people to cancel things, we’re not closing down businesses.’
The hospitality sector is demanding the Government bring forward fresh financial support after the spread of the variant and the latest Covid advice to be cautious ahead of Christmas prompted a wave of booking cancellations.
But Mr Sunak insisted ministers were already helping, telling the BBC: ‘Until spring next year most businesses are only paying a quarter of their business rates bill, they are benefitting from a reduced rate of VAT all the way through to next spring, and thirdly there is about a quarter of a billion pounds of cash sitting with local authorities to support those businesses.’
A quiet Soho in London last night. Normally the streets would be packed at this time of the year – just one day before Black Eye Friday
This restaurant in Newcastle had swathes of empty tables – while only a few revellers were out and about in bars
Pubs and restaurants have now started closing early for Christmas after they were hit by a ‘double whammy’ of staff absences and plummeting consumer confidence.
Some restaurants said they had ‘no option’ but to shut because so many of their staff have caught coronavirus and have had to isolate amid fears the problem will worsen as the ‘tidal wave’ of infections surges across the country.
Mr Sunak and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke held calls yesterday with firms including Prezzo, Black Sheep Brewery, Nando’s, Greene King, Whitbread and Adnams.
Labour has called on the Government to announce a new support package for the sector but ministers are yet to commit to providing any extra cash.
It is feared that the UK could be recording hundreds of thousands of daily Covid cases by Christmas Eve as Omicron continues to surge.
That could force millions of Brits into isolation, potentially causing huge disruption to the workforce and to key industries.
The hospitality industry has accused Boris Johnson of imposing a ‘lockdown by stealth’ after Professor Chris Whitty urged people to limit socialising in the coming days.
Mr Johnson denied the claim yesterday, telling reporters: ‘We’re not saying that we want to cancel stuff, we’re not locking stuff down, and the fastest route back to normality is to get boosted.’
Some small pubs and restaurants are deciding it is better to shut than stay open, either because lots of their staff have contracted Covid and are not available, or because nearly all their bookings have been cancelled. However, most venues remain open and very few big chains have shut.
Yesterday, society favourite Evelyn’s Table in London’s Soho put its closure down to ‘members of our core team having to isolate’.
Barrafina Drury Lane in Covent Garden said ‘staff members isolating makes the services non-viable’, while Kol in London’s Marylebone said that it had ‘no option’ but to temporarily close while ‘key team members isolate’.
Darjeeling Express near Leicester Square reported a ‘double whammy of staff sickness combined with huge cancellations of groups’, while Blend Kitchen in Sheffield said it had seen a 50 per cent fall in bookings.
After daily virus cases surged to a record 88,376 with 146 deaths yesterday, British Chambers of Commerce president Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith warned: ‘With the UK recording its highest ever number of Covid cases in a single day, and this being set to rise further in the coming days and weeks, businesses now face the two-punch combination of serious issues with staff absence and plummeting consumer confidence.’
Britain could reach up to 460,000 daily Covid cases by Christmas Eve – forcing two million people into isolation – if infections continue to increase as quickly as some scientists expect. Such huge numbers could cause massive disruption to key services from people being off work.
While government contingency plans call for the military to be called in to cover gaps in services such as the NHS, police, Border Force and energy workers if they are hit by huge shortages, they are untested in the real world. Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital Trust in London said 10 per cent of its staff are currently off due to Covid.
If the number of people testing positive doubles every three days, then there would be 463,704 daily cases on Christmas Eve. That would force the 1.9million people testing positive between now and then into isolation for 10 days, the equivalent of 3 per cent of the population
Such huge numbers could partially paralyse the country, causing ‘huge disruption from people being off work’ and threatening key services including the NHS and police, experts claimed. Graph shows: The number of NHS staff off work with Covid every day over the last two weeks. Dips on December 5 and 12 occurred on Sundays, when fewer staff are working and therefore less absences are expected. Figures are expected to increase in the coming weeks