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‘Where on earth is the chancellor?’ - hospitality sector in crisis as public told to limit socialising

Industry leaders and MPs are demanding support from Rishi Sunak after people were told to limit socialising over Christmas in what has been branded a "pseudo-lockdown" due to Omicron.

The hospitality and events sector is demanding government support over Christmas as people avoid socialising. Image: Noel Treacy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The hospitality and events sector has been plunged into crisis in the busiest period of the year as people avoid socialising for fear of catching Covid before Christmas. 

People have been urged to scale back their Christmas socialising by chief medical officer Chris Whitty, who implored the public to only mix with others if absolutely necessary as Omicron surges.

But the government has offered no plan for how the hospitality and events industry can survive with plummeting customers, or any support for staff who face losing wages as work dries up.

The Treasury has stayed silent altogether but Chancellor Rishi Sunak – said to be in California for work – is under increasing pressure to act from industry leaders, and MPs, including his Tory colleagues.

Labour is demanding a package of support by the end of Thursday – “UK time”.

Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association, said: “Where on earth is the chancellor of the exchequer?

“The press conference was the latest blow in a week of the government’s public health messaging taking a sledge hammer to what is usually the busiest period of the year for night-time economy businesses.”

Kill accused the prime minister of lacking the political will to impose actual restrictions and instead creating a “pseudo-lockdown” – meaning the sector now faces the worst of both worlds – a drop in footfall and no support.

He added it was “staggering” the Treasury had yet to comment on the situation.

“The chancellor needs to come out of hiding and outline how he will support nightlife businesses – who have already carried so much burden in the last two years – through the Omicron wave,” he added. “Surely he can see it will only be worse for the economy in the long run if these businesses are left to try to fend off failure on their own.”

Positive Covid tests – or the prospect of one within 10 days of Christmas – are hitting the sector hard, with people either unable to attend pre-booked events or not willing to take the risk. Pubs, bars and restaurants are also seeing fewer customers and cancelled bookings.

Dublin-based promoter Will Rolfe told The Guardian he thinks there is an average 40% no-show at gigs across the UK at the moment.

North London hip-hop artist Little Simz is scheduled to perform sold-out shows at Brixton Academy in south London over the next three nights – an ordinarily hot ticket for an artist whose album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert was named the best of 2021 by BBC Radio 6 Music.

But more than 400 people are trying to sell tickets on platform Twickets – some for as little as £11.40, almost a third of face value. Others are simply offering them to people free of charge on social media.

A Twickets spokesperson told The Big Issue listings are now far outweighing demand on the platform.

“Two events that sum the situation up are Little Simz and the World Darts Championship,” they said. “A few weeks ago, any listings for Little Simz would sell immediately, however, for the three London shows, we now have over 400 unsold tickets.

“For the darts at Alexandra Palace, we have received far more listings than in previous years and we have a very healthy array of tickets available for each day of the tournament.”

Britpop favourites Supergrass have taken the decision to postpone their show at Brixton Academy on December 20, as well as all other shows this month, saying “to play these shows at this point in time would be the wrong thing to do for all concerned”.

Chef Michel Roux Jr said the situation was a repeat of March 2020, before the first lockdown was announced.

There have been reports furlough could make a return in the event of another lockdown, but the Treasury is under intense pressure to act sooner.

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves and shadow secretary of state Jonathan Reynolds have written to Sunak insisting that plans to support businesses are brought forward.

“There is an urgent need to stop businesses closing by stealth and workers paying the price,” the letter reads.

In an urgent question in the House of Commons, Pat McFadden MP, Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, demanded the support package arrives by the end of Thursday.

He said: “Where is the chancellor? Why did he decide to proceed with a trip to California on Tuesday when it was already clear that UK businesses were struggling to cope with what the prime minister himself has called a “tidal wave” of Omicron?

“We are not in lockdown but it would be totally disingenuous to pretend that businesses can trade normally when the prime minister has used a special national broadcast to warn the nation of a tidal wave of Covid infections and the chief medical officer has told us to cut back on social contact.”

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has also hit out at the government.

He tweeted on Thursday: “You can’t tell people to “think carefully” before going to pubs and restaurants and then fail to provide any support for the workers/businesses affected.

“The government needs to bring forward a support package TODAY for hospitality, events, music and other affected sectors.

“To be clear – if support is provided to businesses, it should be on the clear condition that some is passed on to staff facing reduced income over the holiday period or being laid off (ie a furlough).”

Tory MP Anne Marie Morris has also called for industry support.

Union Unite says without a financial package of support, workers will be hung out to dry.

Leader Sharon Graham said: “The uncertainty the prime minister is causing is devastating – workers don’t know if they will even have a job to go to next week.  This is an appalling position to put people in.”

She added hospitality workers “still have rent to find and bills to pay but are seeing their incomes disappear before their eyes”.

“They need help now,” Graham added.

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Caitlin Lee, chair of Unite Hospitality Glasgow told The Big Issue: “Unless the government reintroduces furlough we’re going to see job losses.

“We’re already incredibly low paid as it is so for us to have our hours cut – quite drastically – in what everyone was expecting to be the busiest time, that’s going to have a massive financial impact.”

Unite Hospitality Glasgow is calling for 100 per cent furlough, compared to the 80 per cent in the last furlough scheme – “that’s not enough, nothing else goes down to 80 per cent but your wages,” said Lee.

Academy Music Group, which runs Brixton Academy, has been contacted for comment.

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