Covid: 'We’ve had 20 cancellations in one weekend'

1 month ago 41

By Michael Race & Oliver Smith
Business reporters, BBC News

Image source, Damian Wawrzynia

"We had 20 cancellations over the weekend, mostly for Christmas parties. Customers were phoning to tell us they weren't sure what was going to happen in a few weeks so they'd rather cancel now."

Damian Wawrzynia, an award-winning chef, is one of many in the hospitality industry worried about the impact the Omicron variant of coronavirus is having on his business.

The sector has been allowed to operate free from restrictions since 19 July, but there are fears customer confidence in eating and drinking out has taken a hit as restaurants and bars prepare for their main money-making period of the year.

There are also concerns some measures could return after the government announced it was reintroducing mandatory mask-wearing in shops and on public transport.

"Hospitality has been waiting for Christmas, and if it's not what we were hoping for, there's going to be some casualties across the industry, including my places," said Mr Wawrzynia, who runs House of Eats in Peterborough.

"We won't be able to survive without that Christmas trade."

Hospitality has been one of the hardest hit industries by the coronavirus pandemic, with many pubs, hotels and eateries being closed during lockdowns.

As businesses have begun to recover and recoup lost earnings, a chronic shortage in workers surfaced, with job vacancies reaching the highest levels since records began.

Sam Morgan, who owns the restaurants Craft and 8, told the BBC that a corporate booking for a private dining experience cancelled on Monday after the announcement of the new Covid variant.

He said the business, which had booked a table for 12 people, told him it had changed its policy and would look to rebook in January.

The restaurants purchase fresh produce ahead of large bookings, but Mr Morgan said "that food will now end up in the bin" due to the slim chances of a replacement booking.

His venues usually received up to 150 enquiries a day, he added, but had only seen about 10 in the last 48 hours.

"People are just freezing and they are not doing anything and that's all to do with consumer confidence," said Mr Morgan.

The confidence dent to customers would affect hospitality more than other sectors, he added, as people may think: "Do we really want go out? Do we really need to go? I probably should not book."

However, Mr Morgan said he was "encouraged" that the government had not implemented restrictions on hospitality but said he would be "naive" to believe they may not return.

He said his businesses relied on larger dining groups of 6-16 people, which would be affected if measures such as the Rule of Six returned.

"It's a challenge," said Mr Morgan. "We are fighting a losing battle. We are ladened with debt."

Image source, DaveCritchley

Meanwhile, Dave Critchley, chef and owner of Lu Ban restaurant in Liverpool, told the BBC his recently-opened business had never seen a "solid, full December" due to the pandemic.

He said the Chinese-inspired dine-in was starting to see larger groups cancel their bookings. Since the weekend, two outside events the restaurant was catering for cancelled as a result of the new variant.

"It's a real kick in the teeth," added Mr Critchley. "That's big business. It's a double whammy at the moment."

The chef explained a strong Christmas was something the restaurant was "desperate for" due to January being a "bleak time for hospitality".

"We still want to have a business on the other side. We have got to expect the worst and hope for the best," he said.

Industry figures have said the industry could not "financially sustain another lockdown", with some calling for government support.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK hospitality, said the return of masks in shops and on public transport would "undoubtedly have an immediate impact on consumer confidence", which she said was "fragile".

"There is no doubt that this will have a dampening effect just as we were about to head into our busiest trading period," she added.

Meanwhile, the British Beer & Pub Association said hospitality was a "safe environment" and restrictions "need not be placed on our sector at this time - and particularly during the festive period where we visit the local to see friends and family".

Image source, Getty Images

Like others, Mr Wawrzynia said the industry needs "clear advice" from the government.

"It's not for me to tell people to wear a mask or not. That's the government's job," he added.

"We went through hell in the last 18 months and we really don't need a repeat of that. We need to know what's going on."

He said the government's decision to review current measures in three weeks could deliver a further blow.

"What happens if they announce, around 17 December, that they'll lock us down? It will be an absolute disaster."

A government spokesman said it had taken "swift and decisive action" to mandate face coverings in some settings, but this did not apply to hospitality venues.

He added: "We have already provided an unprecedented support package of £352bn which hospitality businesses have had continued access to, and we have published a new Hospitality Strategy to support England's pubs, bars, restaurants and other venues to thrive long-term."

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