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Chancellor Rishi Sunak Is Still Ghosting Hospitality Bosses’s Support Calls

U.K. Hospitality is pleading for financial support in the wake of omicron decimating festive trading, but other than rising case numbers, little has changed for the government

Rishi Sunak holds out a mobile phone while sat next to Boris Johnson on a green picnic table.
“It’s for me, can you take it?”
Heathcliff O’Malley/Pool/AFP

Hospitality bosses are continuing to call on the government to come to the aid of restaurants and pubs which have seen sales plummet since the introduction of Plan B coronavirus restrictions and attendant concern around the omicron variant of COVID-19 in the last two weeks. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who late on Thursday 16 December, told businesses he wouldn’t be offering them anything more than what was already in place, is yet to respond to those renewed calls.

This afternoon, 20 December, UK Hospitality chief executive, Kate Nicholls, said in a statement that restaurant and pub owners “desperately want to keep their doors open and trade their way to recovery, particularly during the Christmas period [...] However, these catastrophic figures [40 percent fall in trade at the weekend] clearly show that trading levels are now so low that without Government support many businesses will not survive into the New Year and jobs will be lost.”

Nicholls also again pressed the government to assist in two main ways: in the short-term, with grant funding to ease cash flow; in the medium and long-term with an extension of the reduced rate of value added tax (VAT), currently down from 20 percent to five percent but which will expire in March.

“The industry urgently needs grants for short-term business survival and an extension to business rates relief and the lower VAT rate to secure longer term survival and planning, Nicholls said. “It is also crucial that the Government lets the industry know as soon as possible if measures are to be imposed and what they might be, to allow for as much damage limitation as possible.”

The last point is important, because while there has been a huge amount of speculation around the introduction of further measures, it has just been speculation. Ministers are yet to commit to a plan; not out of active hostility towards restaurants, but out of a balance that has been precarious since early 2020: between what models assume and what data shows. The reality of the situation is now this:

  1. Further restrictions before Christmas are extremely unlikely because there is insufficient time for them to be enacted and introduced
  2. Further restrictions after Christmas are unlikely because their impact would be debatable if, as is predicted, the omicron peak arrives before
  3. A daily growing list of restaurants in London are now already closed, either because staff members are isolating or customer cancellations and a drop in trading has meant they have had to cut their losses and break early for the holidays
  4. Lots of other restaurants remain open; those outside of the main tourist and office centres remain less affected
  5. The level of compliance with any new restrictions when: a) over 70 percent are double-vaccinated and 43.2 percent have received a booster jab; and b) the rule-makers appear themselves to be serial rule-breakers appears to be itself in the balance and therefore of debatable merit. Especially considering the political cost it will inflict on the already skint Prime Minister Johnson
  6. Though many have indicated plans to reopen not until January, restaurants, like everyone else, will have to wait to learn what happens next

In summary, as was the case on Friday, those who have to be seen to be doing right by businesses which have been caught off-guard and are being hurt by omicron will continue to advocate knowing well that much more is going to have to change before Sunak or anyone else in government answers their calls.