U.K. Offers Business Assistance Amid Omicron, Hopes to Avoid National Lockdown

Hospitality businesses in the United Kingdom could soon receive some much-needed assistance as the Omicron coronavirus strain continues to spread.

On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that one billion pounds, or about $1.3 billion USD, will be distributed to hospitality and leisure businesses through grants. Eligible businesses will be able to receive one-time grants of up to 6,000 pounds (just over $7,900 USD), with an additional 100 million pounds being given to local governments to help other establishments.

"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,'' said Johnson in a statement. "That's why we're taking immediate action."

These grants come as more businesses are either shutting down or finding themselves severely understaffed throughout the region. Theaters and museums have been closing, while restaurants are saying that reservations are being canceled. As a result, many business groups have been urging the U.K. government to help them sustain themselves during the pandemic. While some groups praised the decision, others fear that the damage has already been done.

"The open/close strategy is crucifying businesses," said Michael Kill, the chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association. "Every pound of help is much needed. But this package is far too little and borders on the insulting."

Let's Feast
The British government announced a new grant program to help restaurants and other hospitality businesses impacted by COVID-19. Pictured, members of the public, some wearing face coverings to help combat the spread of COVID, walk past a Christmas-themed window display in a John Lewis shop on Oxford Street in London on December 21, 2021. Photo by Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

The plunge in business came after England's chief medical officer told the public to limit their social contacts and prioritize the events they most want to attend this holiday season. The message came as COVID-19 infections surged to the highest levels ever, raising concerns that hospitals and other emergency services may be overwhelmed.

While the government's scientific advisers have recommended further restrictions on businesses and social interactions, the government has been reluctant to order a lockdown in part because of the cost to the public purse.

Instead, Johnson is betting vaccines will be his savior, urging everyone to get booster shots to slow the spread of Omicron.

Many governments in Europe and the U.S. are confronting similar dilemmas over how hard to come down in the face of Omicron, which scientists say spreads more easily than other coronavirus strains, including Delta, which itself led to surges in many parts of the world. Early evidence suggests Omicron may also produce less serious illness — though experts caution it is too soon to say — and that it could better evade vaccine protection.

Even if it is milder, the new variant could still overwhelm health systems because of the sheer number of infections. Confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.K. have surged by 60 percent in a week as Omicron overtook Delta as the dominant variant.

Businesses argue that the uncertainty alone is wreaking havoc on their companies. Nathan Godley of restaurant supplier Premier Seafoods told the BBC that what he wanted was an idea on how to plan a week in advance.

"Fish doesn't just go from the boat to the restaurant,'' he said. "There's quite a few of us in this supply chain in between, and we all need to know what is happening."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

London Worker
A man cleans tables for outside eating in London, Tuesday, December 21, 2021. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday that his government reserves the "possibility of taking further action" to protect public health as Omicron spreads across the country. AP Photo/Frank Augstein