Businesses who have invested in Britain’s £12billion Christmas economy are being hit by waves of cancellations as fears continue to grow over the potentially dominant Omicron strain.
The hospitality sector, battered and bruised over the past 18 months, had been set for a boost over the festive period but is facing fresh frustration as punters cancel their planned Christmas events.
Figures from trade body UKHospitality revealed bookings were down almost a third (30 per cent) in recent weeks as pubs, bars, restaurants and nightclubs prepare for a slump in Christmas jamborees fuelled by Omicron fears.
The BBC, NatWest and Aviva are among the biggest companies who have shelved or postponed their annual staff celebrations and NHS providers advised workers to ‘avoid large gatherings’.
Restaurant owners have been hit particularly hard, as the chief of the Brasserie Blanc restaurant chain, Mark Derry, warned more than 1,500 bookings had been cancelled over the past week.
Industry chiefs blamed the Government’s muddled messaging as it emerged the PM’s decision to keep the economy open despite concerns over Omicron could be worth £1.1billion to markets and £10billion to hospitality.
Thousands of Christmas parties up and down the UK are being cancelled amid conflicting advice from ministers over the new variant – a sector of the economy which is thought to be worth around £1billion.
Business leaders and MPs have urged the Prime Minister to get a grip as they warned public confidence has dropped as a result of mixed messages on whether to press ahead with festive plans.
Businesses who have invested in Britain’s £12billion Christmas economy are being hit by waves of cancellations as fears continue to grow over the potentially dominant Omicron strain. Pictured: Winter Wonderland in London last month
The incredible areal shot of Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, central London, was taken using a drone as the festival opened last month
The hospitality sector, battered and bruised over the past 18 months, had been set for a boost over the festive period but are facing fresh frustration as punters cancel their planned Christmas events. Pictured: Newcastle on Saturday
People attend a pop up market at Trafalgar Square in London on December 4 as the country tries to preserve a normal Christmas
The decision to keep the economy open could be worth £1.1billion to the Christmas markets and winter wonderland industry
Hat seller Lewis Gait at his festival stall at Newcastle’s Christmas market last week, three weeks before the big day
Britain’s top 15 Christmas markets by total spend
- Manchester £306,000,000
- Birmingham £187,000,000
- London Winter Wonderland £119,000,000
- Nottingham £98,600,000
- Newcastle £91,800,000
- Edinburgh £88,400,000
- Sheffield £47,260,000
- Belfast £44,200,000
- Glasgow £34,000,000
- Bournemouth £34,000,000
- Exeter £20,400,000
- Bath £13,600,000
- Winchester £11,900,000
- York £11,900,000
- Lincoln £8,500,000
Totals compiled by Where the Trade Buys
NatWest, Aviva, UCL, Bandai, Age UK, NHS trusts and the BBC have already gazumped the government by scrapping Christmas parties.
They are among 52 per cent of firms to have shelved plans, according to Covid-testing firm Prenetics – which asked 2,000 office workers.
Meanwhile online bookings platform Design My Night said cancellations had rocked by 14 per cent since the Omicron super-strain emerged.
Many members of staff have been left devastated by the changes – which for many is the second year in a row.
Megan McCracken, 25, from Sheffield, told the Guardian she was gutted not to meet her colleagues for the first time at the dinner.
She said: ‘It was a big deal because we’ve had such a terrible couple of years. It was light at the end of the tunnel.’
But like many companies her occupational health firm called off the party which she said was disappointing.
She added: ‘I think a lot of people would feel uncomfortable about a big thing now, but everyone is still very much up for meeting up in smaller groups,’ she said. ‘Otherwise it’s like that light at the end of the tunnel has gone. And you have this feeling: are we in this for ever now?’
Yet Al, 32, who works as an advertising account manager in London, said she was not fussed her party was off.
She said: ‘I would say I actually like about one in three of my colleagues, I’m not that up for watching them get off with each other and vomit on themselves.’
The city that generates the most revenue from the festive markets is Manchester at £306million across six city centre squares, followed by Birmingham where the Frankfurt Christmas Market brings in £187million.
London’s Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park is estimated to be worth £119million, followed by Nottingham’s Winter Wonderland at £99million and the markets in Newcastle at £92million and Edinburgh at £88million.
Other major UK markets include Sheffield at £47million, Belfast at £44million, Glasgow and Bournemouth both at £34million, Exeter at £20million, Bath at £14million, and York and Winchester both at £12million.
The data was previously collected by Where the Trade Buys, a printing firm supplying small businesses who attend markets, to examine the impact of cancellations due the second national lockdown and tiered system.
The research was based on visitor numbers multiplied by £34 per head – which included one sweet snack such as waffles at £5, one savoury snack such as a burger at £7, two alcoholic drinks at £10 and ice skating for £12.
Meanwhile the value of the UK hospitality industry at Christmas is thought to be more than £10billion, including £5.1billion on food and another £5.1billion on drinks, according to a prior survey conducted at a similar time last year by jobs site Caterer.com.
And the most recent estimate on Christmas parties from Eventbrite found in a 2015 survey of 500 business decision makers in the UK that organisations were set to spend £955million on entertaining staff.
Insurance expert Danny Roberts, a partner at DFA Law in Northampton, told MailOnline that without a change in coronavirus rules it would be ‘extremely unlikely’ that hospitality businesses could claim for cancelled parties on their insurance.
He said: ‘While disruptions caused by the Omicron variant will likely be extremely damaging for those in the hospitality sector, it is extremely unlikely that they will have any recourse against their insurers.
‘The widespread concern amongst customers and businesses may see many large functions and other bookings cancelled, with the affected restaurants, bars, hotels and other venues having to rely on their terms and conditions as to what they are entitled to recover from the customer.’
He added that Christmas markets are likely to be the same in the same situation as hospitality businesses – although if cancelled by the local council, the terms and conditions of the booking might cover them for some fees, but probably not for the loss of trade.
Tory Party chairman Oliver Dowden insisted people should ‘keep calm and carry on’ with their Christmas plans and parties despite Omicron.
Mr Dowden insisted the Government had been clear in its guidelines – despite a plethora of ministers offering contradictory and confusing advice – and said: ‘There’s a Conservative Party Christmas party still planned’.
Ministers and Boris Johnson’s top scientists all gave different advice last week about whether to hold a Christmas party
Eminent epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector claimed infections of the highly evolved variant were doubling every two days. The above graph, based on MailOnline analysis, shows how the number of daily cases of Omicron could breach the 100,000 barrier before New Year’s Day, if that pace continues
How festive fun is now on hold across the country
Amid conflicting advice, employers have lost confidence and there is now a flood of Christmas party cancellations.
University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust All staff parties have been postponed until next year.
Newham Clinical Commissioning Group GP practices have called off their celebrations.
Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust Small department parties can go ahead but some, including paediatrics, have cancelled.
Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust No trust-wide guidance but some providers reporting cancelled parties.
Hampshire GP practices No Trust guidance but some surgeries are cancelling.
York and Scarborough Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust Scaled back. No large parties – but individual teams can decide whether to go ahead.
Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust No change. Parties on departmental basis, as normal.
The BBC Many departments, including news, have cancelled office parties, claim staff.
The Government’s departments Scaled back. There will be no department-wide parties and it is down to individual teams to decide how to celebrate.
The Metropolitan Police Scaled back. There are no plans for an office-wide Christmas party this year. Down to individual departments.
National Highways Scaled back. No party was planned but smaller gatherings are expected, with lateral flow tests encouraged.
Google Cancelled. All gatherings have been moved to next year and limited to 15 people.
Microsoft Cancelled and replaced with a ‘virtual party’
Universities and charities
University College London All parties have been cancelled or postponed.
Age UK Face-to-face Christmas parties have been called off.
Lloyds Christmas parties are being organised by individual teams locally.
HSBC Scaled back. Staff have not been asked to cancel their team Christmas parties but some have opted for virtual events instead.
NatWest Additional measures. Individual teams organising parties as usual with lateral flow tests recommended.
Finance and insurance
Deloitte Scaled back. Smaller teams can hold parties.
EY Scaled back. Smaller group celebrations and face coverings must be worn.
PwC Scaled back. Plans for smaller parties subject to consent of department heads.
KPMG Scaled back. Parties will be on a group by group basis.
Slaughter and May Scaled back. Smaller team parties only, which was decided before Omicron.
Ashurst Scaled back. Lateral flow tests before smaller, team-based parties.
He also said that providing Britons abide by mask rules on public transport and in shops, they can kiss anyone they like under the mistletoe.
Mr Dowden told Sky News: ‘The message to people, I think, is fairly straightforward – which is keep calm, carry on with your Christmas plans. We’ve put the necessary restrictions in place, but beyond that keep calm and carry on.
‘I understand that people have concerns around the new variant. That’s why the Government has taken the sort of measures that we’ve already outlined … we think those are sufficient at this stage and, beyond that, people should continue with their plans as intended.’
Last night, Sajid Javid waded into the controversy on Christmas parties for the second time in as many days – but rather than clarifying the matter, he muddied the waters further.
The Health Secretary contradicted earlier advice from Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who had warned against ‘snogging’ under the mistletoe.
Mr Javid said: ‘People can snog who they wish. I’ll certainly be kissing my wife under the mistletoe. It’s a Javid family tradition and it’s got nothing to do with the Government who you kiss.’
His comments came after science minister George Freeman suggested that companies planning events for more than ‘four or five’ people might want to take extra precautions.
He revealed that the Business Department, where he works, had cancelled its party just days after the Prime Minister urged organisations to go ahead with their plans.
Meanwhile, Dr Jenny Harries, the head of the UK Health Security Agency, suggested people should cut back on unnecessary socialising over the festive period.
The differing advice from leading figures has sparked renewed anger from the beleaguered hospitality industry.
Trade body UK Hospitality said that firms are reporting that at least one in ten Christmas parties has been cancelled in recent days.
It comes as the Government recorded another 53,945 cases yesterday and 141 deaths.
A survey by the Daily Mail yesterday found that a string of major employers have cancelled plans for Christmas parties or switched to virtual events. The NHS, Google and Lloyds Bank are among those that have called off their festive gatherings.
Mr Johnson last night tried to calm the situation, issuing a second public appeal to people to not cancel Christmas events.
But industry figures warned the damage was already being felt.
Patrick Dardis, chief executive of pub group Young’s which runs more than 270 sites, said: ‘The messaging has been terribly confusing and inconsistent.
‘From Friday we had seen some cancellations. We are hoping this all starts to calm down again and that government can properly get the message across that it is safe to go out and celebrate.’
Tim Rumney, head of hotel chain Best Western, said the Omicron variant had been like the ‘ghost of Christmas past’, as he criticised ministers over their differing advice. He told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: ‘Three-quarters of our members have seen cancellations for festive bookings.
‘The concern that we have is we have got some mixed messaging from government and from the scientific advisers.
‘The longer the uncertainty goes on, the more cancellations we’ll have and the more acute the problem will become.’
Meanwhile, Sacha Lord, the night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester, said: ‘In the last 48 hours it’s been catastrophic for the industry. It’s been a huge domino effect. This isn’t just restaurants, this is the whole ecology around it – it’s the supply chain, it’s the taxis, it’s hotel rooms, it’s everything that goes with it.
‘December is a time when people can have a good time – they can take up to 25 per cent of their annual turnover in December. Sadly, at the eleventh hour, it’s been snatched away from them.’
And former minister Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, last night said the contrasting advice was already causing damage.
He said: ‘How can businesses, families and individuals possibly plan with so much uncertainty?
‘Government really needs to get a grip and make its mind up on what it wants people to do. It seems like there are too many people in government who quietly want everything to be cancelled.’
The Prime Minister last night tried to impose order, saying people should ‘continue as they are’.
Speaking after receiving his booster jab, he told reporters: ‘I want to repeat the guidance is there and I’m very, very keen that people understand this. We don’t want people to feel that they need to start cancelling things.’
The PM also called on schools not to call off nativity plays and other Christmas events.
No 10 yesterday stressed that it does not want Christmas parties to be cancelled, despite Government departments opting to do so. When asked why departments were doing this, the PM’s official spokesman said: ‘The Prime Minister has been very clear on this.
‘On Christmas parties, we don’t want people to cancel such events. There is no Government guidance to that end.’