Several London restaurants are preemptively closing for Christmas and New Year — one of the busiest trading periods of the year — because of overwhelming uncertainty regarding the Omicron variant of Covid-19.
Italian duo Forza Win and Forza Wine; newly opened central London bakery and restaurant Toklas; Mayfair’s Kol; Dalston’s Snackbar; De Beauvoir’s Hector’s; and Broadway Market’s Hill and Szrok are among those to have closed either because of current cases, or after weighing up the risks of staying open and possibly subjecting staff to the virus and a period of isolation over Christmas. These mostly preemptive closures follow a slew of event and private party cancellations, to which restaurants have responded by opening up seatings to “normal” customers. Currently, beyond mandatory face coverings in indoor settings, restaurants are not subject to any Covid-19 restrictions, and are not required to ask diners for proof of vaccination or a negative test as a condition of entry.
This kind of uncertainty is not unfamiliar to anyone in the restaurant world who has lived through the last 20 months. At first glance, it has echoes of March 2020, when Boris Johnson told diners to “stay away” from restaurants four days before ordering them to close. Then, as now, many London restaurants took preemptive action and closed themselves down, before any financial support arrived.
But the reality is very different. Despite current ambiguity, many London restaurateurs who have spoken to Eater over the last few weeks would diagnose 2021 as better than expected; strong trade through late spring, summer, and autumn has bolstered balance sheets more than had been foreseen, and closure is less financially unthinkable than it might have been. All of these closures have reopening dates. Furthermore, unlike the Alpha and Delta waves, a combination of high vaccine uptake, the booster programme which today, Wednesday 15 December, extended to all over-18s, and infection-acquired immunity leaves England in a much better position than 2020 and early 2021. This, coupled with an exceptionally rapid spread of the Omicron variant means that this is a very different kind of uncertainty to before.
MPs voted through “Plan B” Covid-19 restrictions — mandatory face coverings and so-called Covid “passports” for access to large venues — last night, Tuesday 14 December. Prior to that vote, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty reinforced a message pushed through the press by Health Secretary Sajid Javid late last week: Omicron cases are doubling rapidly, and if they continue to do so, there will very quickly be a huge number of cases, which could then translate into numbers of hospitalisations and deaths that put severe pressure on the NHS. These hypothetical doublings, however, are also a key limitation on the models that inform government strategy: they do not account for the wall of immunity that any rapidly spreading virus will inevitably hit. It cannot simply grow forever.
Moreover, some observed hospital data in South Africa, and virological studies on Omicron’s replication support a growing but preliminary body of evidence that if not intrinsically less virulent, Omicron could present with less severe disease than the Delta variant when met with immunity from vaccines and prior infection, even if it can effectively bypass that immunity when it comes to infecting people. This could reduce the length of hospital stays and burdens on intensive care units, but any such impact would require setting against the volume of admissions proportionally connected to higher case numbers.
This combination of more ambiguous severity and more rapid replication is what makes the uncertainty different to before. There is little middle ground between two poles. One: having very little time, if any, before a fast rise in hospital admissions and deaths. The other: things turning out to be less severe from a disease perspective, but still causing huge numbers of staff and would-be diners to self-isolate on statutory sick pay. This situation would effectively close restaurants down anyway, without any financial support. In the face of this new kind of uncertainty, it is little wonder that restaurants are taking the cautious approach.