BRITAIN on Tuesday (21) launched a £1 billion support package for Covid-hit businesses, as staff absences from rising cases began to bite in the run-up to Christmas.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said some 200,000 firms would be eligible for one-off grants to offset losses from what is normally the busiest time of year.
Under the support announced on Tuesday (21), hospitality and leisure firms in England will be eligible for grants of up to £6,000 for each of their premises, accounting for almost £700 million of the new package.
The grants were equivalent to those provided to hospitality businesses when they were fully closed earlier this year, the Treasury said.
Pubs and restaurants have seen Christmas parties and bookings cancelled because of the spread of the Omicron variant of the virus, hitting December trade by as much as 60 per cent.
Sunak said the government recognised that businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors were facing “huge uncertainty at a crucial time”.
A fund to support cultural organisations would be increased by £30m, while £100m would be provided to English local authorities for business support measures and £150m to governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The ministry also said it would cover the cost of statutory sick pay for Covid-related absences, for up to two weeks per employee, for small and medium-sized employers across the UK.
Britain borrowed more than £300bn in the last financial year to help it offset the hit to the economy from coronavirus and the government’s lockdowns.
“Of course, I will always respond proportionately and appropriately to the situation that we face, people can have confidence in that,” Sunak said when asked by a reporter if there would be more help for businesses in the event of further restrictions.
Asked about the likelihood of more restrictions, Sunak said the situation was too uncertain to know the path ahead.
“What the prime minister said is that we’re reviewing the data day by day, hour by hour, keeping the situation under constant review but can’t rule anything out,” he said.
Retailers have felt the chill from Omicron in December, as shoppers stayed at home to prevent catching the virus before Christmas, employers’ association the CBI said.
The government is banking on an ambitious campaign to get all adults in England to have a booster jab of a Covid vaccine by the end of December to try to stop the spread of the mutation.
The director of the Wellcome charitable foundation, Jeremy Farrar, told BBC radio transmission was “eye-wateringly high”, as daily infection rates nudged towards 100,000.
Across the country, all sectors of British industry have been hit as staff contract the virus and are forced to self-isolate at home. As the Christmas getaway begins, train companies apologised for employee absences and warned they could affect scheduled services and even lead to cancellations.
Edinburgh Castle and the National History Museum in London – two of the country’s most visited attractions – were forced to close their doors because of staff illnesses.
That came after several theatres in London’s West End entertainment district cancelled performances to protect performers and the public.
Meanwhile, the hotel and restaurant industry has seen closures because of a lack of staff. And in the public sector, the government has called for retired teachers to help out, as the virus forces staff out of the classroom.
In London, unions have warned that firefighters face “unprecedented” manpower shortages, although its response to emergencies has not yet been affected. The hospitality and retail sectors were already feeling the pinch of staff shortages, as foreign staff left due to the pandemic and new post-Brexit immigration rules.
Johnson has come under pressure from business owners and industry bodies to reintroduce support packages for Covid-hit sectors, who were already struggling after curbs in the last year.
He is, however, facing intense pressure from within his own Conservative party not to bring in tougher restrictions on public freedoms.
Last week, nearly 100 of his own MPs voted against the roll-out of vaccine passports to allow access to some venues, including sports grounds.