Rishi Sunak to hold crisis talks over Omicron’s impact on pubs and restaurants after cutting California trip short

The Chancellor faces pressure to produce a rescue package for the hospitality sector as Christmas festivities have been scaled back after the rapid growth of Omicron

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Rishi Sunak will hold crisis talks with business leaders who have seen takings plummet due to fears over the spread of Omicron.

The Chancellor faces pressure to produce a rescue package for the hospitality sector as Christmas festivities have been scaled back after the rapid growth in cases of the coronavirus variant.

The latest daily figures showed almost 90,000 Covid-19 cases were recorded as of 9am on Thursday, the highest figure so far in the pandemic, and a health chief warned there could be a “major problem” as the latest wave hits NHS staff.

Boris Johnson insisted that the Plan B measures he has imposed in England are “sensible” and “proportionate” while the booster jab campaign proceeds.

But in Wales, tougher rules will be imposed after Christmas with nightclubs ordered to close from December 27 and a return to two-metre social distancing rule in offices.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has also warned that “restrictions on the operation of higher-risk settings, while of course undesirable, may now be unavoidable”.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, said a combination of increasing hospital cases and staff shortages could cause difficulties across the health service.

Asked whether a lockdown was inevitable, he said: “It’s very difficult to tell at this point.”

He told BBC’s Question Time: “The bit that is really going to come up and give us a major problem is the number of staff that we’re going to have off because of the fact that they have caught Covid.”

The infection rate will mean “significant numbers of our staff are actually not going the able to be at work”.

While the NHS had been able to increase capacity to deal with previous Covid-19 waves, it was already “the busiest we have ever been at this time of year” and dealing with a surge of cases could be “really quite difficult”.

Mr Hopson also called for clearer messaging from the Government, after Tories railed against England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty for suggesting people should consider scaling back social contacts if they wanted to see loved ones at Christmas while the Prime Minister insisted “we’re not saying that we want to cancel stuff”.

Mr Johnson rejected claims the Government was imposing a “lockdown by stealth” but urged people to be “cautious” about their activities over Christmas.

But the impact of the measures already taken have hit pubs and restaurants hard, forcing Mr Sunak to cut short a work trip to the United States to fly home for talks with the sector.

The Chancellor said “I appreciate that it is a difficult time for the hospitality industry” and promised the Government would continue to do “whatever it takes” to support lives and livelihoods.

Trade body UKHospitality’s boss Kate Nicholls and pub chiefs have made a plea for business rates relief and VAT discounts to be extended, warning that the sector has been knocked harder than expected by the new restrictions.

Ms Nicholls said hospitality sales have already plunged by more than a third over the past 10 days with £2 billion of trade already lost in December.

The British Beer and Pub Association said an estimated three million Christmas bookings had been cancelled in the past week.

Premises are forecast to sell 37 million fewer pints and lose out on £297 million in trade across the festive period compared to 2019.

The combination of the Plan B restrictions and Prof Whitty’s comments meant “consumer confidence has been hugely undermined”, chief executive Emma McClarkin said.

In a letter to Mr Sunak she said a failure to offer further support “risks mass closures in an industry which remains on a knife-edge after a brutal previous 21 months”.