Omicron Brings New Round of Foreboding for British Businesses
On Thursday morning, a group of 50 called to cancel their holiday party booked for that evening at Luc’s Brasserie, a French restaurant in the financial district of Britain’s capital. That same morning, a group of 21 canceled their party too, also for Thursday night.
The previous night, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that stricter Covid measures were coming, and the impact was immediate for Darrin Jacobs, the owner of Luc’s. There had been a “multitude of cancellations,” he said.
But thanks to a waiting list of reservations, he said, the restaurant was still fully booked until Christmas. And many of the canceled bookings had optimistically rescheduled their celebrations for early next year.
“We won’t lose the business, we’ll just move the business on,” Mr. Jacobs said. But “it’s not easy because we’ve already bought food and moved staff around,” he said.
For months, businesses across Britain have been desperately trying to maneuver around supply chain disruptions, labor shortages and rising costs as they emerged from various stages of lockdown.
Offices reopened, which filled up commuter buses and trains; restaurants and pubs advertised to host holiday parties; and lines grew longer at city center coffee shops.
Now, the emergence of the fast-spreading Omicron variant has unexpectedly dealt those efforts a blow. The government has revived coronavirus restrictions that are likely to weigh on hospitality and travel businesses during the critical holiday season and put a dent in the economy.
“I don’t know where this is going to go next week,” Mr. Jacobs said. “I think this is a tip of the iceberg-type scenario and it may get a lot worse next week and, if that’s the case, we’ll really have to scale it back.”
For now, he’s still cautiously optimistic. But his business relies on people who work in nearby offices and walk to his restaurant in Leadenhall Market, especially several insurance companies. On Thursday, Mr. Jacobs heard that two large companies were closing their offices again.
In England beginning Friday, face masks will be required in most indoor public places including cinemas and theaters. Starting Monday, people who can work from home should. And starting in the middle of next week, passes showing vaccination or a recent negative Covid test will be required for large events and nightclubs, Mr. Johnson announced this week. The rules will be voted on in Parliament next week. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have set their own measures, which are slightly stricter.
“Unless you go to a full or partial lockdown, the effect of the measures themselves will be rather small,” said Paul Mortimer-Lee, the deputy director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in London. “What will be hurting the economy is individuals’ responses.” People are likely to take more precautions to protect themselves from the virus, especially by socializing less.
While the rules are relatively light, for some businesses this will be an unwelcome retreat.
Before the Omicron variant was discovered, the British economy was losing some momentum while prices were rising rapidly, putting inflation at its highest level in nearly a decade. Gross domestic product grew 1.3 percent in the third quarter, down from 5.5 percent in the previous three months. And that growth was driven by spending on services, especially in hotels, restaurants and entertainment as the last of the major pandemic restrictions were lifted in the summer. In October, economic expansion slowed sharply, to just 0.1 percent from the previous month.