Theatres face a peak Christmas season with bookings down by as much as 50%, while restaurants and other attractions could see mass cancellations, as a result of the government’s new Covid restrictions.
The Society of Independent Theatres said regional and smaller theatres would be especially hard hit by “plan B” government restrictions and concerns over the Omicron variant during a period when they generate about a third of their income.
High street retailers are also braced for customers to seek protection from the spread of the virus by shopping online for Christmas presents, hitting revenues and plunging many into losses.
Official figures on Friday showed economic growth almost stalled in November and several forecasters said the UK was heading into 2022 in a weakened position.
Suren Thiru, head of economics at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “It is like Groundhog Day for many businesses. There is going to be downward pressure on consumer confidence and that is going to hit sales. It means the economy is unlikely to grow at all in the last three months of the year and be very weak in the first half of next year.”
Business leaders have called on the government to extend VAT relief and reductions in business rates, while the TUC said the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, should bring back the furlough scheme and increase sick pay to prevent businesses from going bust.
Sunak is known to be watching how businesses cope with restrictions before committing himself to an increase in spending, though a shift to more stringent measures over the next couple of weeks is likely to force his hand.
Many business owners have seen revenues hit by rising inflation, a lack of trained staff and falling consumer confidence. Some hospitality firms, especially in London, have resorted to paying signing-on fees for staff, only to be hit later by large numbers of cancellations.
Heathrow said passenger numbers were 60% lower in November than before the pandemic and there were “high cancellations” among business travellers concerned about being trapped overseas for Christmas as Omicron spreads.
Theatres now have to ask visitors to wear masks but do not have to check for Covid-19 tests or vaccine passports. However, some large venues are already doing so. Jon Gilchrist, executive director of events venue Home in Manchester, said: “More and more venues will move towards a Covid pass system and are set up to do that to further reassure audiences that theatres are a safe environment.”
John Plews, chair of the Society of Independent Theatres and artistic director at the Gatehouse in north London, said that even some small theatres were considering asking attendees for a proof of vaccine or a test, although it would be too costly for many.
He said the society’s members had seen bookings for Christmas shows hit by between 20% and 50% already because of concern about the Omicron variant and because bigger venues were heavily discounting tickets in order to fill seats. “Passports mean employing extra front-of-house staff,” he said.
Gilchrist said the government’s advice to work from home could have an impact on venues, particularly those in central London. But he said bookings currently remained “encouraging” and there was “room for optimism that we can have a good Christmas in the sector”.
Jon Morgan, director of government-funded advisory body the Theatres Trust, said: “Over time, working from home means there will be a reluctance to go into town to see a show. It is a nerve-racking time for the industry.”
Philip Miller, boss of Adventure Island and Sealife Adventure on Southend seafront, said bookings to see Santa were down by 50%. He said: “It’s like a graveyard. I’m talking to staff about them going home.”
“The chancellor is going to have to do something. Hospitality was just getting back on its feet, but if this situation goes on many firms are going to go under.”
Flair Gougoulia, owner of a Greek restaurant in Stratford-upon-Avon, said: “These are scary times. Stratford survives on 5-6 million visitors a year from China, America and the rest of Europe and the town was on its knees after Covid hit.
“Christmas party bookings are down by up to a half on some days and the situation does not look like improving. Businesses were relying on a good December. What’s happening now is a kick in the teeth.”