The founder of Wetherspoons, Tim Martin, has criticised restrictions designed to curb the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 as “arbitrary”, warning that the pub chain’s first half profits could be wiped out by what he called “lockdown by stealth”.
In an update to the stock market, JD Wetherspoon told investors that “uncertainty, and the introduction of radical changes of direction by the government, make predictions for sales and profits hazardous”.
The company, which consistently reported soaring sales before the pandemic, suffered a £105.4m loss in the year to July 2020 followed by a record £195m deficit the year after, as coronavirus restrictions took their toll.
It had been hoping to rebound from the impact of the pandemic this year but told investors that the government’s plan B for tackling Omicron, including guidance to work from home where possible, meant it was likely to be “loss-making or marginally profitable” for the first half of its financial year.
Martin has been one of the most high-profile Brexiters in British business, a role that had previously seen him endorse Boris Johnson. But he has since become an outspoken critic of the prime minister over Covid-19 measures affecting the hospitality industry, which he claims is not a significant source of outbreaks of the disease.
“The typical British pub, contrary to received opinion in academia, is usually a bastion of social distancing,” he said on Monday.
“However, the repeated warnings and calls for restrictions, mainly from Sage [committee] members and academics, combined with arbitrary changes of direction from the government, invariably at short notice, affect customer sentiment and trade.
“In effect, the country appears to be heading towards a lockdown by stealth.”
He cited comments made by Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, who has said the Omicron variant does not warrant the “extreme action” taken by the UK government.
Martin added: “For reasons best known to themselves, perhaps in order to encourage more vaccinations, the UK government and its advisers are creating an entirely different and more frightening impression of the variant, which appears to be at odds with the South African experience.
“In spite of these problems, booster vaccinations and better weather in the spring are likely to have a positive impact [on Wetherspoons’ trading] in the coming months.”