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A Plan B Christmas will put the industry under “severe pressure”

Published:  09 December, 2021

A re-tightening of restrictions is threatening to put a pin in Christmas celebrations, causing more gloom for the hospitality sector as the government rubber stamps plans to introduce vaccine passports for late-night venues.

As part of a roster of new measures, the government has announced Covid passes via the NHS app will become mandatory for nightclubs and other large venues from next Wednesday (15 December). This includes unseated indoor venues with 500 or more people, unseated outdoor events with 4,000 or more people and any event with 10,000 or more people.

It’s a new blow for a sector which saw some encouraging recovery in November. According to the latest Coffer CGA Business Tracker from CGA, The Coffer Group and RSM, Britain’s managed pubs, restaurants and bars saw total sales rise 2% on 2019 levels last month, marking the fourth consecutive month sales have exceeded 2019 levels.

Rising sales have offered cause for some optimism alongside reports that the Omicron is less harmful than previous Covid-19 strains.

Despite the “resilience of managed groups in the face of ferocious headwinds”, Karl Chessell, director of hospitality operators and food, EMEA at CGA, cautioned that mounting concern over Covid-19 measures will impact a “fragile” recovery.

“Businesses have battled hard to shore up sales ever since their venues reopened in the Spring, but the new Covid-19 variant adds yet another threat to trading in the most important month of the year. The next few weeks will be crucial to give hospitality some momentum for growth in 2022, but new restrictions may threaten the future of thousands of fragile businesses and jobs.”

“The news of restrictions due to the Omicron variant of Covid-19, and supply and staffing issues all rising, Christmas trading is under severe pressure,” he added.

UKH has also similarly warned that the restrictions will “significantly impact consumer confidence”.

“While the government clearly acknowledges that hospitality is safe and can continue to host celebrations in the lead up to Christmas, the measures announced today will significantly impact consumer confidence and be particularly devastating to city and town centre venues,” UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls, said.

“As such, they risk devastating the hospitality sector amid its most important time of the year. We therefore desperately need support if we are to survive this latest set of restrictions and urge the government to stand behind our industry. That means full business rates relief, grants, rent protection and extended VAT reductions. Anything less would prove catastrophic.”

Underpinning this uncertainty is an eerily familar dose of Christmas confusion.

According to Westminster, Christmas parties can still go ahead under the new rules, while The Times reports that further restrictions on gatherings are unlikely to be introduced before the end of the year. Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted that “Christmas should go ahead as normally as possible”, although he also urged the public to “exercise due caution”.

So far, hospitality settings such as pubs and restaurants remain unaffected by the new face covering rules, as the government has made an exemption for “venues where it is not practical to wear one, such as when you are eating, drinking or exercising”.

Questions have also been asked whether or not vaccine passports ‘work’. Reports from France, where ‘passports’ have been required in a wide range of settings, suggest such measures have encouraged the younger generation in particular to get vaccinated. The UK government’s scientific advisers however have told ministers that passports have “limited evidence for the direct impact of certification on population level rates of infection and/or severe disease”.

There is also the issue that even those vaccinated can still be infected and spread the bug. Meanwhile, Omicron is doubling every two or three days, while by Christmas it is expected to have overtaken Delta as the UK’s dominant strain.