Support needed for businesses to survive Omicron

Today’s guest blog comes from Carly Heath, Bristol’s Night Time Economy Advisor

Omicron is like the poor Christmas sequel nobody wanted, looming over our communities and damaging our economy once more.  

Just a couple of weeks ago our hospitality sector was booming, businesses were struggling to find staff, bookings were healthy across the city, and the supply chain was fully stocked ready for a busy festive season.  

Fast forward three weeks and the current situation is in stark contrast.  

We must of course all take steps to protect ourselves and each other when the virus is now circulating so rapidly – many of us want to see loved ones at Christmas and we all need to protect the health service from becoming overwhelmed. But we also need to ensure businesses and workers in the city are prioritised in the coming months.

I’ve been speaking to businesses across the sector, particularly in hospitality, and since the work from home directive was issued last week Christmas party bookings have tumbled. There is not a single business unaffected. 

This has serious implications across the city. Fully booked staff rosters are dwindling. Temporary staff, often on low incomes and zero hours contracts, are being relieved of their shifts the week before Christmas. 

And where is the Chancellor? As I see it, he has a number of options available to him when it comes to reinstating support packages.

In the darkest days of the pandemic VAT was slashed to 5% to support those businesses being hardest hit by restrictions. We’re currently at 12.5% and this will increase to 20% in April. Of course, implementing further VAT relief will only be of benefit if businesses are able to trade, and with takings down across the board, taking this step alone won’t be enough to save jobs.  

Grants such as the Additional Restrictions Grants (ARG) sound great on paper, but in reality, those in hospitality have very few restrictions on them at the moment. They’ve been told by the government they can stay open, but the population has been told by Chris Whitty to deprioritise social contact. The restrictions on hospitality are practically self-imposed, and once again, hospitality is feeling the raw end of this pandemic. We need to see support packages reinstated with the flexibility built in to reflect this challenge.   

Business rates relief may be a blunt tool, but it would be a relief for many, nonetheless. The Chancellor needs to ensure that any rate relief is fully compensated so that our cash-strapped councils can also weather this storm.  

However, rates relief won’t offer much comfort to the supply chain. New Year’s Eve was looking really healthy for our nightclubs, local performers and promoters. Much of the creative NTE supply chain are freelancers. Many of them received very little help throughout this pandemic. 

Sector specific furlough will help stem the job losses, but we must be mindful of those who are not on the payroll when schemes are designed and ensure support is available to these groups too.

The supply chain within the food and drink sector is also going to be seriously impacted by this loss in footfall in what is usually their busiest three weeks of the year. We have 14 breweries in Bristol. All of them will have been making produce for months to satisfy the demand over this festive season.  

That’s why I signed a letter to the Chancellor today, alongside the Business Improvement Districts and businesses in the city, calling on the government to step up support for our sector once more.

The night time economy, hospitality and the supply chain have been on the raw end of this pandemic throughout. I’m concerned for the wellbeing of workers in the industry who have been on a Corona-coaster for the past 20 months. If you know anyone who earns a living from this sector, please drop them a line to check in on how they are. We all need to be looking out for each other right now. 

If you are going out and enjoying yourself this Christmas, please go and get your booster and consider taking a test before going anywhere busy or crowded. These are simple measures that will help us all to stay safe, and our businesses to stay open.

It’s time for government to step up support once again – if they are genuine about their commitment to helping businesses survive, they will take the immediate action the sector so desperately needs to survive the winter.