Rishi Sunak has offered a £1 billion support package to businesses hit by Covid restrictions amid concerns over the “eye-wateringly high” transmission of the Omicron variant.
The Chancellor has come forward with additional help for the hospitality and leisure sectors in England following days of urgent lobbying from MPs, firms and industry officials.
It includes one-off grants of up to £6,000 per premises for businesses in the affected sectors in England, which the Treasury expects will be administered by local authorities and to be available in the coming weeks.
The announcement comes after a special plea was made to The Chancellor to help Torbay's ailing local tourism and hospitality sector which is facing a bleak Christmas and New Year in the wake of the latest Covid alert.
Speculation is mounting that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet are considering bringing in extra safety measures after a huge surge in the Omicron variant cases.
Whether that is before Christmas or after is not yet clear but the hospitality industry is already feeling the fall-out as customers vote with their feet during what should be one of their busiest times of the year.
Torbay MP and junior Home Office minister Kevin Foster has received reports that bookings are down between 50 per cent and 60 per cent in the resort's pubs and restaurants.
Mr Foster contacted the Chancellor, requesting a support package.
He has told the Chancellor: "Torbay’s hospitality and tourism businesses have been very grateful for the support provided over the last 20 months. It ensured they survived and mass unemployment was avoided.
"I hope you will now consider what support can be offered to hospitality and their staff, from extending business rates relief and VAT reductions, to what can be provided to staff who have suddenly seen shifts cut back and income reduced."
Today's announcement included news of the Government also intending to use taxpayers’ cash to cover the cost of statutory sick pay for Covid-related absences for firms with fewer than 250 employees.
Cultural organisations in England can also access a further £30 million funding during the winter via the culture recovery fund, the Treasury said.
Mr Sunak’s announcement follows crisis talks with business leaders after he cut short a Government business trip to California.
Businesses have seen takings plummet due to Christmas festivities being scaled back amid fear over the spread of Omicron.
It comes as Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the global charitable foundation Wellcome, warned “we’re in the most difficult, most uncertain time, perhaps of the whole pandemic, certainly since March of 2020”.
Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA), also said the previous rapid increase in cases appears to be slowing and, if that is true, there is no need for a lockdown.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said of the new funding: “With the surge in Omicron cases, people are rightly exercising more caution as they go about their lives, which is impacting our hospitality, leisure and cultural sectors at what is typically the busiest time of the year.
“That’s why we’re taking immediate action to help with an extra £1 billion in grants to these industries and reintroducing our Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme.
“I urge people across the country to please get boosted now to secure vital protection for yourselves, your loved ones and your communities.”
Mr Sunak added: “We recognise that the spread of the Omicron variant means businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors are facing huge uncertainty, at a crucial time.
“So we’re stepping in with £1 billion of support, including a new grant scheme, the reintroduction of the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme and further funding released through the culture recovery fund.”
The extra support builds on existing schemes in place to assist businesses, the Treasury said.
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