Having kept on the down-low this week, the chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced that the government will now offer restaurants, pubs, and cafes up to £6,000 in grants to help through the unforeseen period of downturn in the wake of the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19.
“We recognise that the spread of the Omicron variant means businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors are facing huge uncertainty, at a crucial time,” Sunak said in a statement this lunchtime, 21 December. He has announced a “£1 billion of support,” which includes a new grant scheme of up to £6,000 per hospitality business, the reintroduction of the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme (for Covid-related absences), which expired at the end of September.
Though it is probably a boon to the big chains which will now be able to recoup a significant amount of lost cash over the festive period, it offers far less support to the likes of independent London restaurants and their suppliers. One general manager at a central London restaurant group said that the combined projected takings for the period of necessary closure — between 15 and 29 December — was £67,000. (They did not wish to attach the figures to the name of their company because they were projections.)
Another business owner, who also wished to remain anonymous, simply responded with: “Is that it?!” while an independent supplier texted: “oh that’s us fucked.”
But while it’s true £18,000 for three businesses isn’t going to plug a gap, Sunak has also reiterated that additional grant funding from earlier in the pandemic is still sitting with local authorities — thought to be in the region of £250 million. He also announced, with fewer immediately available specifics, “the release of a £1.5 billion package to support the supply chain,” and the rent moratorium remains in place, which still offers some breathing room for those businesses which are struggling to meet rent payments or which still owe a debt to their landlord.
The local authority funding is both real money that can be given to businesses and something of a get-out for Sunak; once devolved, it’s easier for him and his party to say they provided, and any further hiccups are out of their hands. Moreover, the £6,000 grants, which will likely mean little to independent businesses and small groups, quickly add up for large multi-site chains and pub corporations, whose bosses represent the bulk of “industry leaders” calling for support in the media.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive at UK Hospitality called it a “generous package,” which built on existing hospitality support measures to provide an immediate emergency cash injection” at a time when trade had been “annihilated.”
“It will help to secure jobs and business viability in the short term, particularly among small businesses in the sector, and we particularly welcome the boost to funds for the supply chain and event and business catering companies so badly affected by the reintroduction of work from home guidelines,” Nicholls added.
She said that there was now a “real urgency in getting this funding to businesses so we urge local authorities to prioritise distribution of funds to make sure jobs and businesses are preserved through this difficult period.”
No suggestion was made that Sunak was considering the reintroduction of the furlough scheme to cover the wages of staff members unable to work, but should there be the introduction of any further restrictions, restaurant owners and the broader hospitality industry will implore the government for support commensurate with the impact on their revenue and employees. For now, Sunak has done just enough to keep the loudest protestations at bay. But the reality of the new measures will make comparatively little different to the already and many struggling independents across the capital.
But in the age of Covid, restaurants have learned that things can change fast. It is, after all, just four days since Sunak told businesses that existing VAT reductions and rates relief meant he wouldn’t be offering anything them else at all.