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  1. The Explainer
15 December 2021updated 16 Dec 2021 1:33pm

Is Britain heading for a Christmas “lockdown by stealth”?

Hospitality businesses report that cancellations are rocketing as people try to avoid the virus.

By Emma Haslett

Despite the introduction of “Plan B” measures and an accelerated booster programme, the number of Covid cases in the UK is rising steeply: yesterday (14 December) it was reported another 59,610 people tested positive, bringing the weekly total up to 377,601, a 12 per cent increase on the previous week. Boris Johnson will hold a press conference at 5pm today on the growing number of Omicron infections.

The Plan B measures, which were narrowly passed in a vote in parliament last night, are designed to prevent another lockdown – but hospitality businesses are reporting that the number of people cancelling bookings has already rocketed. Critics of the measures say that this amounts to a “lockdown by stealth” – where the government hasn’t actually tightened restrictions, but consumer behaviour changes and businesses suffer. 

Will a lockdown be announced before Christmas?

The government has been emphatic that it is doing everything it can to avoid a Christmas lockdown – but with the number of Omicron cases now doubling every two days, Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling persuaded the government to introduce the first lockdown in 2020, has said it is likely to become the primary variant by Christmas. 

Today, the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that if new measures were proposed, parliament would have to be recalled over Christmas. “I don’t think that’s going to need to happen this year,” he added, hopefully. 

[read more: Will there really be another lockdown in the UK?]

Will there be a lockdown on 5 January 2022?

It makes sense that another lockdown would begin at the start of the school term: with schools off for Christmas, children – who are mostly unvaccinated – will essentially be in micro-lockdown over the holidays. But the line from politicians remains the same: at the end of November, Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Sky’s Trevor Phillips that people should “continue with their plans as normal”. 

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“We know now those types of [restrictive] measures do carry a very heavy price, both economically, socially, in terms of non-Covid health outcomes such as impact on mental health,” he added.

Will schools be closed?

So far, the government has resisted closing schools, telling local authorities that schools should not end the term early for Christmas. 

The Prime Minister has also said that closing schools would be a last resort. On Monday (13 December), his official spokesman said: “We’ve always sought to keep face-to-face schooling open and have only restricted it in cases when there’s the direst public health emergency.

“There’s certainly no plans to do [close schools]. We think we’ve got the right balance through Plan B and our big uptick in boosters.”

Which sectors are worst affected in a “lockdown by default”?

Plan B – which mandates mask-wearing in shops, Covid passes for large venues and events, and which asks people to “work from home if you can” – has already had an effect on hospitality, industry sources say. UK Hospitality has predicted turnover for December, the sector’s most lucrative month, will be 40 per cent lower than usual, while the Music Venue Trust says attendance at gigs has fallen by 23 per cent in the week since Plan B was announced, leading to a 27 per cent fall in gross income. Future income from ticket sales has also fallen 27 per cent, it says. 

The problem, says Suren Thiru, head of economics at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), is that spikes in Covid cases tend to change consumer behaviour – particularly around Christmas, when people isolate “just in case” in order to avoid catching the virus and being unable to see family on the day itself. 

“One thing we have to watch out for quite closely here is, is the impact on… consumer confidence,” says Thiru. 

[read more: Could the furlough scheme be reintroduced?]

How can the government help businesses? 

It’s clear a “lockdown by stealth” will affect businesses – but in the absence of formal measures, the BCC has called for support packages such as grants for those worst affected or a VAT cut targeted at the hospitality sector.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has asked the government to reinstate the Covid sick pay rebate in order to help small firms support those needing to self-isolate, relaunch the workplace testing initiative and increase the business rates discount for the hardest-hit firms to 100 per cent. It also pointed out that the £1.5bn business rates relief fund for businesses affected by Covid, which was launched in March this year, is “yet to pay out a penny”. 

However, yesterday the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned Chancellor Rishi Sunak that it’s likely he will need to reinstate furlough. “Should there be the need for more restrictive measures, especially affecting contact-intensive sectors, then the policy support will have to be calibrated accordingly,” said its managing director, Kristalina Georgieva. Government ministers, meanwhile, have said they are working on a “range of options” to provide support.

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