UK to give $ 1.3 billion in aid to businesses affected by omicron

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LONDON (AP) – Britain announced £ 1 billion ($ 1.3 billion) in grants and other aid to help the hospitality industry survive the onslaught of the omicron variant of COVID-19 , giving in to the days of pressure from pubs, restaurants and other businesses complaining that public health warnings have torpedoed the vital Christmas season.

Businesses in the hospitality and leisure industries in England will be eligible for one-time grants of up to 6,000 pounds ($ 7,954) each. An additional £ 100million ($ 133million) will be given to local governments to support businesses in their regions affected by the surge in COVID-19 infections caused by the new highly transmissible variant.

While industry groups praised the funding, many said it was too narrowly targeted and more assistance would be needed if the spike in infections continued or if the government imposed more restrictions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday that he would not place any new restrictions on coronaviruses until Christmas – but new measures could come after the holidays if omicron continues to rise.

“We continue to monitor omicron very closely and if the situation deteriorates we will be ready to take action if necessary,” he said in a video statement.

Pubs and restaurants have reported a wave of cancellations during the crucial Christmas season as people avoid public events and workers are forced to self-isolate, leaving places understaffed. Many theaters and museums have also closed.

“With the increase in the number of omicron cases, people are rightly exercising more caution in their lives, which is impacting our sectors from hospitality, leisure and culture to what is generally the busiest time of the year, ”Johnson said in a statement. “This is why we are taking immediate action. “

The business plunge came after England’s chief medical officer told the public to limit their social contact and prioritize the events they most want to attend this holiday season. The message came as COVID-19 infections reached the highest levels ever, prompting fears that hospitals and other emergency departments were overwhelmed.

Business groups, including the UK Chamber of Commerce, the Federation for Small Businesses and UKHospitality, have asked the government for help.

“The decline in trade at this critical time for the hospitality industry has been catastrophic, so we are extremely grateful that the Chancellor has recognized this and offered generous support,” said Kate Nicholls, Managing Director of UKHospitality . “This will help businesses stay afloat and save jobs.

While several organizations praised the government’s help, some major interest groups said so much damage had already been done that the support offered on Tuesday was insufficient.

“Open / close strategy crucifies businesses,” Michael Kill, managing director of the Night Time Industries Association. “Every help book is essential. But this package is way too small and borders on insult.”

Others have pointed to significant gaps in the package. The aviation industry and companies in the food and drink supply chain, for example, will not be eligible for the aid, said Stephen Phipson, managing director of Make UK, an industry group for manufacturers.

“The hotel industry is not the only sector to be seriously affected,” he said. “The government must now consider targeted support for the aerospace sector in particular, which has taken one step forward and now two steps back as travel calms down again.”

Government science advisers have recommended new restrictions to slow the spread of omicron, but Johnson has been reluctant to order a lockdown in part because of the cost to the public purse. The UK has already spent more than 350 billion pounds ($ 464 billion) to fight the pandemic, bringing public debt to 96% of gross domestic product, the highest since 1963.

Instead, Johnson is betting that the vaccines will be his savior, urging everyone to get vaccinated.

Many governments in Europe and the United States face similar dilemmas over how difficult it is to cope with omicron, which scientists say spreads more easily than other strains of coronavirus, including delta , which itself has led to outbreaks in many parts of the world. Early evidence suggests that omicron may also produce less severe disease – although experts warn it’s too early to tell – and that it may better escape vaccine protection.

Even though it’s milder, the new variant could still overwhelm healthcare systems due to the sheer number of infections. Confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the UK rose 60% in one week as omicron overtook the delta as the dominant variant.

Businesses argue that uncertainty alone is taking its toll. Nathan Godley of restaurant supplier Premier Seafoods told the BBC he needs to be able to plan for the future.

“The fish don’t just go from the boat to the restaurant,” he said. “There are quite a few of us in this supply chain in between, and we all need to know what’s going on.”

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

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