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21 December 2021

How Omicron has devastated the UK’s hospitality industry

Restaurants have lost more than a fifth of their customers and the sector may lose £4bn.

By Katharine Swindells

Rishi Sunak today announced a £1bn support fund for hospitality but data shows it will be no match for the huge losses that the hospitality sector is facing. 

Covid-19 levels in the UK are approaching 100,000 newly reported cases a day, and many people are choosing to “self-lock down” to reduce the risk of catching the virus before Christmas. Despite chief medical officer Chris Whitty actively encouraging people not to mix, Boris Johnson’s has delayed any decision on further official restrictions. 

The swathe of bookings cancellations and drop in demand is devastating for the hospitality industry, which disproportionately relies on Christmas (UKHospitality has estimated the cost to the sector will be £4bn). 

Data from Opentable, a platform that supports online bookings for restaurants, pubs, bars and events, reveals how damaging this “worst of all worlds” lockdown has been for restaurants and others in the hospitality industry.

Based on a representative sample of both booked and walk-in customers at UK restaurants, the data shows that in the second half of November, the number of people dining in London was up by more than 10 per cent compared to the same period in 2019. Revealing the strong sector recovery that has been seen over the past few months.

In early December, as concerns over the Omicron variant grew, weeknight restaurant visits began to fall, but weekends remained extremely strong, more than 20 per cent higher than in 2019, perhaps indicating that people were beginning to reduce social contact and saving restaurant visits for Christmas parties and special occasions.

But last week restaurants saw a sharp drop in customers, with daily diners more than 20 per cent below 2019 levels. Over the past weekend, despite it being the last before Christmas, the strong growth seen earlier in the month was significantly reduced.

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In fact, this data may well understate the problem as it reflects the national average and downplays the devastation on venues in London, where Omicron cases are the highest. The data also only covers restaurants, whereas people may be even less likely to go to pubs and venues where social distancing is more difficult.

Nick Mackenzie, the chief executive of the pub and brewery chain Greene King, which runs more than 2,700 pubs, restaurants and hotels across the UK, told the BBC that bookings had collapsed, with pubs in some parts of the country down 70 or 80 per cent on their 2019 levels.

A survey conducted over the weekend by the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), which represents pubs, bars and clubs, found that a third of venues fear they may close within a month if they do not receive urgent government support.

On average, the survey found each venue had missed out on £46,000 through lost sales and cancellations, meaning Sunak's promise of up to £6,000 per venue falls far short,

“It really is a chilling prospect to see so many venues in our sector left to bleed, with a lockdown in everything but name and absolutely no recognition of this from the government,” said Michael Kill, the chief executive of the NTIA. “These venues have faced over 20 months of financial hardship and the Christmas trade period was integral to keeping those surviving businesses afloat in the upcoming year.”

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