Pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels could not survive a second Christmas lost to Covid-19 restrictions, hospitality figures have warned, as the government faces growing pressure to impose “plan B” measures to curb the rise in coronavirus cases.
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, said on Wednesday that while new infections could hit a record 100,000 a day, he would not be reintroducing measures such as working from home or compulsory mask-wearing “at this time”.
Phil Urban, chief executive of Mitchells & Butler, which owns pubs and restaurants including the All Bar One and Harvester chains, said ministers had left it too late to address rising case numbers and that any action now could devastate the industry.
“People are very nervous and if you move to plan B, it puts Christmas at risk,” he said. “The industry is not out of the woods and just as we get our momentum back, we’d have the rug pulled out from under us.”
He said some restrictions, such as mask-wearing, would be tolerable as long as tougher curbs that could put festive trade at risk were avoided.
Hospitality businesses typically earn 40% of their annual profit between Halloween and New Year’s Eve, according to Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UK Hospitality, which represents 730 companies operating 85,000 venues.
“We lost Christmas in its entirety last year, so it’s desperately important for survivability, getting you through the bleak months of January and February when people don’t come out as much,” she said.
“A lot of businesses are still fragile. Any knock at this point in time could have an impact on viability. People will just go to the wall.”
Nicholls said customers were already cautious about booking ahead for the festive period as Covid-19 cases rise, with the UK this week recording the highest number of deaths since March. Advance bookings for the festive period would usually be 90% complete by the August bank holiday, she said, but were running at much lower levels this year.
Sally Beck, general manager of the Royal Lancaster hotel in London, which has more than 400 rooms and hosts hundreds of events a year, said booked events were still going ahead; they had not received queries about cancellations and inquiries about future events were currently running higher than usual.
She said the hotel lost about £9m on cancelled events last year when Covid restrictions were brought in and bedroom occupation was still about half normal levels for the time of year.
“We’ve gone through the mill and it is totally vital we have a festive season. If they are going to restrict us on numbers and social distancing then let us know now and we can get on with it. Just don’t shut us down. Don’t kill us,” she said.
On Thursday, the government denied it was weighing up a plan C option, under which any household mixing at Christmas could be banned in England.
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, warned that restrictions on that scale would be “catastrophic”.
“We don’t want to end up being the scapegoat for an issue that isn’t around our industry,” he said, adding that evidence suggested the biggest rise in cases was in secondary schools.
Andrew Harrison, a spokesman for the Events Industry Alliance, which represents businesses which put on business conferences at venues such as Birmingham’s NEC, said a blanket ban on mass gatherings would “devastate the industry”.
He said many organisers were already asking attenders for proof of vaccination or using measures such as mask-wearing.
After only being able to operate for three months of the last 19, Harrison said there had already been “huge number of companies going bust and thousands of people made unemployed”.
He said: “What we don’t want is a kneejerk reaction that all mass events are unsafe. [Some events] are already struggling to get people to return and [a ban] would be a very difficult and bitter pill to swallow.”