What Covid? No sign of Omicron fears as Brits enjoy Xmas blowout
Brits ignore Omicron surge to party on the biggest night out before Christmas as Rishi Sunak flies back to take part in crunch talks with the beleaguered hospitality industry and SAGE demands a two-week lockdown and households mixing ban
- Revellers in Leeds, London and Birmingham pictured enjoying Christmas blowout amid Omicron fears
- Hospitality bosses had warned ministers alarmist rhetoric on new mutant strain had hit consumer confidence
- But pictures taken on Friday night showed the party spirit was alive and well across Britain’s largest cities
- Leaked SAGE minutes urge restrictions as two-week circuit breaker lockdown was mooted by ministers
- CBI and other groups asked Rishi Sunak for emergency grants, VAT drop and 100% business relief for retail
Revellers showed little sign of any festive Omicron fears on Friday night as they let their hair down and danced the night away as SAGE’s scientists called for a two-week circuit breaker lockdown to curb rising cases.
Pictures taken in Leeds, London, Birmingham and Newcastle showed busy nightlife venues filled with thousands of partygoers enjoying festive nights out on so-called Black Eye Friday – one of the busiest nights out of the year.
Punters packed into nightclubs in Leeds, London and Newcastle on Friday night. Meanwhile, large crowds filled German-style Christmas markets in Birmingham and cheered the sight of Father Christmas.
In Cardiff, hundreds of young people hit the town to make the most of their last night out before Christmas after the Welsh government announced nightclubs were to close from December 27 and social distancing rules were to be reinstated.
Despite Friday night’s strong showing, Tory ministers are set for crunch talks this weekend to discuss whether new Covid curbs are needed following dire warnings from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies group’s scientists.
Leaked minutes of a SAGE minutes warned that restrictions will be needed ‘very soon’ to prevent hospitalisations from soaring to 3,000 a day, as plans for a two-week circuit breaker lockdown with a ban on indoor mixing were said to have been drawn up.
An emergency Cobra meeting will discuss if a joint response to the threat of the Omicron variant is needed across the UK. The meeting will raise fears that more curbs could be imposed before Christmas – despite the opposition of Tory MPs and Downing Street’s apparent determination to get through without them.
It comes as Britain recorded its highest number of daily infections since the pandemic began, with a total of 93,045 people testing positive for Covid in the past 24 hours, up 60 per cent in a week.
Industry experts had feared the Government’s increasingly alarmist messages surrounding the Omicron mutant strain was affecting customer confidence over what should be a peak period for pubs, bars and restaurants.
Festive takings are expected to fall by up to 40 per cent in December – crippling venues that survived by a thread during previous lockdowns and expect to receive no financial support this time around.
BIRMINGHAM: Father Christmas is seen standing in the centre of packed out and mask-less crowds in Birmingham on Black Eyed Friday
NEWCASTLE: Hundreds of young people hit Newcastle town centre on Black Eyed Friday
LEEDS: A group of young revellers hit the town on Black Eye Friday, one of the busiest nights of the year for pubs, bars and nightclubs
CARDIFF: Punters packed into bars and clubs in the Welsh capital despite a steep rise in Omicron cases
LEEDS: Punters queue for the last big Friday night out before December 25 in Leeds
LONDON: Hundreds of people gather round a street performer as they make the most of one of the last weekends of 2021
CARDIFF: Late on Thursday, the Welsh government said it would close nightclubs from December 27 and impose a two-metre social distancing rule. Pictured: Punters enjoy the festivities in Cardiff
NEWCASTLE: A group of girls celebrating their friend’s 21st birthday hit the clubs on the final Friday before Christmas
CARDIFF: A young woman watches on as a group of revellers enjoy their chips outside a JD Wetherspoon in Cardiff
CARDIFF: Young people ditch their face coverings as they head out on ‘Mad Friday’ with new Covid curbs coming into force from next week
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been pictured arriving back in the UK at Heathrow Airport for crunch talks with furious hospitality bosses struggling with plummeting demand due to the Omicron mutant strain
Leaked minutes of a SAGE minutes warned that restrictions will be needed ‘very soon’ to prevent hospitalisations from soaring to 3,000 a day, as plans for a two-week circuit breaker lockdown with a ban on indoor mixing were said to have been drawn up
This weekend’s Cobra meeting, involving ministers from all the devolved administrations, is the second in a matter of days.
Boris Johnson held crisis talks with the leaders of the three devolved administrations, including Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, earlier this week.
During the meeting on Thursday, the experts backed a ban on indoor social contact and hospitality. In what could be a blow to Britons planning New Year parties, they want fresh measures to come in before January 1.
‘The timing of such measures is crucial,’ said the minutes, seen by the BBC.
‘Delaying until 2022 would greatly reduce the effectiveness of such interventions and make it less likely that these would prevent considerable pressure on health and care settings.’
Whitehall officials are preparing draft regulations that would ban meeting others indoors except for work purposes, and pubs and restaurants would be limited to outdoor service only, reported The Times.
According to the Sage minutes, the advisers recommended moving back to restrictions set down in Step One and Two of the roadmap out of lockdown in the spring, which involved a ban on indoor social contact and indoor hospitality.
They warned that solely sticking to Plan B could lead to ‘at least’ 3,000 hospital admissions a day in England. Admissions have been between 800 and 900 a day in the past week. Introducing these measures early enough ‘could substantially reduce the peak in hospital admission and infections compared with Plan B alone’, the minutes said.
Boris Johnson was presented with several options yesterday for a so-called Plan C, ranging from ‘mild guidance to nudge people, right through to lockdown’, according to the Financial Times.
Any further restrictions would increase the pressure on Rishi Sunak to give more help to the hospitality sector, which has been hit by the warnings over the new strain.
The ‘California Chancellor’ was pictured arriving back in the UK for crunch talks with furious hospitality bosses struggling with plummeting demand due to the Omicron mutant strain.
Mr Sunak had been in the US on a ‘long-planned’ Government trip to meet tech bosses but his timing has attracted criticism, with one top British executive telling the FT that he was too busy drinking ‘organic kale smoothies’.
The Chancellor met hospitality leaders yesterday via Zoom but had to miss one roundtable event because it clashed with a scheduled call with US healthcare bosses.
Bosses are demanding the Government bring forward fresh financial support after the spread of the variant and the latest Covid advice to be cautious ahead of Christmas prompted a wave of booking cancellations. Industry leaders expect the final total to hit £4billion of lost takings.
But Mr Sunak insisted ministers were already helping, telling the BBC: ‘Until spring next year most businesses are only paying a quarter of their business rates bill, they are benefitting from a reduced rate of VAT all the way through to next spring, and thirdly there is about a quarter of a billion pounds of cash sitting with local authorities to support those businesses.’
Mr Sunak and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke held calls yesterday with firms including Prezzo, Black Sheep Brewery, Nando’s, Greene King, Whitbread and Adnams.
He insisted ministers were not telling people to cancel their Christmas events, adding: ‘The situation is very different to what we’ve done and encountered before. We’re not telling people to cancel things, we’re not closing down businesses.’
Many have been left enraged by advice from government scientists to cut down on socialising which has led to a collapse in trade.
Ministers will decide this weekend whether any new Covid restrictions are needed following the latest dire warnings from scientists. An emergency Cobra meeting will discuss if a joint response to the threat of the Omicron variant is needed across the UK. (The PM is pictured in west London on Friday)
The CBI and other groups asked him for emergency grants, 100 per cent business rates relief for retail, and for VAT to be reduced to 5 per cent for hospitality and tourism.
The business groups raised concerns about the impact of cancellations on certain sectors and the importance of clear messaging from the Government.
It came as figures showed that footfall in London’s West End on Thursday was 32 per cent down on the same day in 2019, before the pandemic. Numbers were down 7 per cent on a week ago.
Traffic levels at the same period today were 33 per cent in Birmingham, 36 per cent in Manchester, 40 per cent in Liverpool, 34 per cent in Sheffield, 46 per cent in Leeds and 28 per cent in Newcastle.
Pubs and restaurants have now started closing early for Christmas after they were hit by a ‘double whammy’ of staff absences and plummeting consumer confidence.
Some restaurants said they had ‘no option’ but to shut because so many of their staff have caught coronavirus and have had to isolate amid fears the problem will worsen as the ‘tidal wave’ of infections surges across the country.
Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of New West End Company, said: ‘With rising Covid cases dampening consumer confidence and a planned Tube strike looming on Saturday, we’re anticipating a muted final weekend of Christmas trading at a time when West End businesses should be enjoying a much-needed boost.
‘The Government must act quickly to provide temporary financial support to leisure businesses across the UK, otherwise we run the risk of further viable businesses closing their doors in the coming months.’
The Institute of Directors’ chief economist, Kitty Ussher, said: ‘It made sense to unwind pandemic-related business support schemes when it looked like business conditions were beginning to return to some semblance of normality.
‘However, following the Omicron variant and the subsequent drop in consumer demand in some parts of the economy, this is patently no longer the case. For restaurants, travel companies and venues, this couldn’t come at a worse time.
‘We are therefore calling on government to stop the unwinding of remaining support schemes, such as the VAT reduction for hospitality and business rates support.’
It comes as Britain could reach up to 460,000 daily Covid cases by Christmas Eve – forcing two million people into isolation – if infections continue to increase as quickly as some scientists expect. Such huge numbers could cause massive disruption to key services from people being off work.
Labour has called on the Government to announce a new support package for the sector but ministers are yet to commit to providing any extra cash.
It is feared that the UK could be recording hundreds of thousands of daily Covid cases by Christmas Eve as Omicron continues to surge.
That could force millions of Brits into isolation, potentially causing huge disruption to the workforce and to key industries.
The hospitality industry has accused Boris Johnson of imposing a ‘lockdown by stealth’ after Professor Chris Whitty urged people to limit socialising in the coming days.
Mr Johnson denied the claim yesterday, telling reporters: ‘We’re not saying that we want to cancel stuff, we’re not locking stuff down, and the fastest route back to normality is to get boosted.’
Some small pubs and restaurants are deciding it is better to shut than stay open, either because lots of their staff have contracted Covid and are not available, or because nearly all their bookings have been cancelled. However, most venues remain open and very few big chains have shut.
Late on Thursday, the Welsh government said it would close nightclubs from December 27 and impose a two-metre social distancing rule in offices.
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