Politics

Covid UK: Hospitality fury at government’s mixed messages over Xmas parties


What are major companies doing for this year’s Christmas parties? 

NatWest: Employees should to take a lateral flow test before attending team parties, but attendance is a personal choice.

Financial Conduct Authority: No centralised Christmas parties – it is up to each team to decide whether they wish to organise a small gathering, and colleagues can make a personal choice on whether they want to attend. 

Microsoft: One large ‘virtual’ party, but some smaller teams are having in person events, which was always the plan. There was never a scheduled in-person event. 

HSBC: Bosses have not asked staff to cancel Christmas events, although expect some may wish to have virtual or split team events for business continuity. 

Legal & General: Bosses decided in October that Christmas celebrations should be kept small and team-based due to Covid-19 

Deutsche Bank: The firm hasn’t held big Christmas parties ‘for some time’, but individual teams have them. There is a rule that staff need to take lateral flow test before or cannot go.

Google: Company has emailed UK staff urging them to ‘move any planned in-person social gatherings until 2022’ and limiting them to no more than 15 people

BBC: Holding off from staff Christmas parties

JP Morgan: Has not issued Christmas party guidance so far.  

Lloyd’s: Bosses decided to hold the annual staff party in the summer instead of having a Christmas one, to enjoy the warmer weather and following staff feedback 

Aviva: Staff should take a Covid test on the morning of their Christmas parties, which are also within teams – and should ‘wear face coverings as appropriate’.

Deloitte: Staff can make a personal choice on whether to attend, with parties taking place within teams. 

EY: Christmas parties within teams are still taking place.

PricewaterhouseCoopers: Firm-wide event is not planned, but smaller parties are taking place. 

KPMG: Christmas parties will take place within teams.

NHS Providers: Staff at some NHS trusts have been told ‘not to mix in big groups’ ahead of Christmas. 

Britain’s pubs and restaurants have lashed out at the Government’s ‘catastrophic’ 48 hours of mixed messaging as firms call off Christmas parties and cancel bookings at hospitality venues across the country amid mounting uncertainty about the new Covid variant. 

Hospitality businesses have accused ministers of spreading ‘scare stories’ about the so-called ‘Omicron’ strain and giving conflicting advice about whether to limit their social contacts this winter.

Firms including Google, NatWest and Microsoft have either scrapped their Christmas parties or scaled them down, moved them online or pushed them into next year after Business Minister George Freeman said office celebrations should be limited to ‘four or five staff’ or axed completely.

Hospitality chiefs have warned the wave of cancellations could cost the sector ‘billions’ and without government grants or furlough in place will have a serious impact.

Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UK Hospitality, said fears about the new variant will have a ‘dampening effect’ and venues face making a loss without the cushion of financial support.

Last year the Government introduced schemes including business grants and furlough for businesses forced to close during the pandemic. These programmes remained in place for the subsequent 18 months and proved to be enormously costly. 

Critics have accused Ministers of ‘scaremongering’, with the Government’s latest restrictions – including compulsory facemasks, blanket quarantine for ‘Omicron’ contacts and gloomy language about the threat of the new variant – actually encouraging a semi-lockdown by stealth, despite just 32 cases of the new strain detected so far.  

But without an official change to Covid rules, the Government is highly unlikely to compensate venues which lose out – meaning that firms and hospitality businesses will be left to haggle over who foots the bill among themselves. 

Asked who would be liable if companies call off their Christmas parties, Ms Nicholls said all businesses would ‘incur significant costs for last-minute cancellations’.

Urging people not to call off festive celebrations, she told MailOnline: ‘Individual businesses will have their own booking policies in place and a larger number than usual have been asking for deposits for larger group bookings this year. 

‘However, others won’t have any contingencies in place and all will incur significant costs for last-minute cancellations.

‘It should be remembered that operators have invested heavily to ensure the safety of staff and customers, focusing on better ventilation, hygiene and sanitation, measures which SAGE recommends are the most effective ways to control infection and as a result hospitality venues are safer places in which to socialise than at home.’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged firms not to cancel their Christmas parties, telling people to ‘live their lives’ and insisting that the vaccines remain the ‘best line of defence’ against the new variant.  

But in just the past 48 hours, the Business Minister, George Freeman, declared that office parties should be limited to ‘four or five staff’ or scrapped. Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said there should be no ‘snogging under the mistletoe’. And Health Secretary Sajid Javid told people to take a Covid test beforehand and wear a facemask while partying. 

Richard Corrigan, chef and patron of Corrigan’s Mayfair, said: ‘This was the Christmas that was supposed to save us. Clearly, that’s not going to happen. 

‘We’ve had substantial enough corporate cancellations. It’s shown on the bookings as well. It’s not business as usual. By next April, there will be an absolute crisis in hospitality.’ 

The boss of pub group Young’s said the business has seen some Christmas parties cancelled amid concerns over the variant and criticised government messaging.  

Prime Minister Boris Johnson switches on the Christmas tree lights in Downing Street

Prime Minister Boris Johnson switches on the Christmas tree lights in Downing Street

Minister for Science, Research and Innovation George Freeman

Health Secretary Sajid Javid

Left, Business Minister George Freeman. Right, Health Secretary Sajid Javid. Both in Downing Street, London

Hospitality leaders have accused the Government of 'mixed messaging' as they face a wave of cancellations this month

Hospitality leaders have accused the Government of ‘mixed messaging’ as they face a wave of cancellations this month

Ministers and Boris Johnson’s top scientists have all given different advice about whether to hold a Christmas party

Thirty-two cases of the heavily-mutated variant have been found in the UK after it was first discovered in Africa, and it is feared that the strain may be able to evade the protection offered by vaccines and reinfect people who have previously been infected

Thirty-two cases of the heavily-mutated variant have been found in the UK after it was first discovered in Africa, and it is feared that the strain may be able to evade the protection offered by vaccines and reinfect people who have previously been infected

A Norwegian Christmas party where up to 60 people may have contracted the Omicron variant of Covid-19 over drinks and dinner has sparked panic across Europe

A Norwegian Christmas party where up to 60 people may have contracted the Omicron variant of Covid-19 over drinks and dinner has sparked panic across Europe

When will they make their minds up? Ministers and their muddled advice on Christmas parties

Prime Minister Boris Johnson: Don’t cancel your Christmas party

‘People should live their lives. We are not changing the guidance on how you should basically be living your life… Providing people continue to be cautious and sensible, we think that’s the right approach.

‘We continue to be in a strong position largely thanks to the speed of the vaccine rollout, another booster rollout and I think I’m going to stick with the formula I’ve used before, which is I’m pretty confident to absolutely confident this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas.’ 

Health Minister Gillian Keegan: Continue with your festive plans

‘Continue with your Christmas plans, continue with your nativity plays and your Christmas parties

‘Of course Christmas is on track, and actually what everybody wants for Christmas is if you haven’t had your first jab, come and get it, if you haven’t had your second jab, come and get it, and if you haven’t had your booster, come and get it when you’re asked.’ 

Health Secretary Sajid Javid: Take a test and wear a mask

‘If you are invited to a Christmas party, there’s quite a few people there, maybe you want to take an LFT (lateral flow test) test before you go. Go to the party, but just be cautious.’

Asked if he would wear a mask if he was at a party, Mr Javid said: ‘It depends if I am walking around or sitting down. It depends if I’m eating. People just need to make a decision based on the guidance

Therese Coffey: No snogging under the mistletoe

‘For what it’s worth, I don’t think there should be much snogging under the mistletoe.

‘(You) don’t need to do things like that. But I think we should all be trying to enjoy the Christmas ahead of us and that’s why we’re working so hard to get the deployment of as many vaccines as possible.’ 

‘Christmas we should continue to plan for and enjoy.’ But she said snogging should be avoided with ‘people you don’t already know’. 

George Freeman: Don’t invite more than five people 

Individual businesses, in the end, have to make judgments on what is appropriate internally.

‘It slightly depends on the nature of the business. For many small businesses, four or five staff, who are working together every day anyway, gathering to have a drink isn’t a big step up in risk.

‘But some companies might normally bring hundreds of people in from around the world to a big party, and they may decide, this year, is that sensible given the pandemic and given where we are?

‘In the end, I think business people know how to make those decisions. The Government has set out clear guidance.’   

Young’s CEO Patrick Dardis, whose chain runs more than 270 sites across the UK, said: ‘I think the messaging has been terribly confusing and inconsistent. One moment you have Jenny Harries telling people to avoid socialising and an hour later you have Sajid Javid saying the opposite.

‘I think the messaging started as a complete over-reaction and, unsurprisingly, it has concerned some people. From Friday we had seen some cancellations. We are hoping this all starts to calm down again and that Government can properly get the message across that it is safe to go out and celebrate. We take safety incredibly seriously and I want people to be reassured that there won’t be anywhere better than a pub to socialise from a hygiene and ventilation point of view.’

Ms Nicholls blamed Saturday’s ‘chilling’ press conference – where Boris Johnson announced a new raft of Covid restrictions including compulsory facemasks and rules on self-isolation – and deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries’s talk of reducing socialising ahead of Christmas. 

‘It’s a trickle at the moment… but we need that message to be reinforced more strongly to put an end to the uncertainty and the threat of a stop-start to the economy again in the run up to Christmas,’ she said.

‘I think there’s also a sense of trepidation that their plans might be disrupted again, and so that irrespective of whether there are government controls imposed on the economy, that is having a cooling effect undoubtedly on hospitality.

‘We already saw that bookings were subdued this year compared to pre-pandemic levels. And this will clearly have a further adverse impact on our businesses.’ 

Russell Norman of Bruto told the Telegraph: ‘If there’s one thing I’ve noticed from our customers it is absolute confusion. People don’t know if they should wear masks on arrival, as they move between the table and the bar, or to the loos. 

‘People are waiting for a solid, confident message. They are nervous and they want guidance.’ 

Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, called for more clarity from government. He said: ‘As we embark in earnest on this make-or-break festive season, clarity, consistency and proactive promotion of official advice is more important than ever.

‘If that advice is to carry on with plans – with protective measures like hand sanitiser, screens, ventilation, masks and testing in place, which small firms have already been investing in these past 18 months – then that needs to be made crystal clear.’

And the boss of Marston’s, which runs 1,500 pubs and hotels across the UK, said the company has been seeing bookings on a smaller scale this Christmas.

Advertising supremo Sir Martin Sorrell said there had been a ‘sharp series of cancellations’ in Christmas parties since the emergence of the Omicron variant, but that there was not enough Government guidance.

The executive chairman of ad agency S4Capital told the BBC Radio Four Today programme: ‘The uncertainty is extreme and Government policy, understandably, I mean to be a little bit sympathetic to the Government, it is an extremely difficult situation.

‘But we have been through this before with Delta and the previous variants, so you would have thought the Government would be a little bit more prepared for what may or may not happen in terms of scenario planning.’

Sacha Lord, the night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester, has joined a growing chorus of calls from the hospitality and tourism industry for the Government to offer support by freezing VAT at the lowered rate of 12.5 per cent for two years.

He told Sky News the advice from Dr Harries earlier this week that people should not socialise unnecessarily has been ‘catastrophic for the industry’.

‘We’ve seen office parties cancelled, flights are cancelling, it’s been a huge domino effect. December is a time when people can have a good time – they can take up to 25 per cent of annual turnover in December. Sadly, at the eleventh hour, it’s been snatched away from them,’ he said.

He added that if the planned rise in VAT from 12.5 per cent to the original 20 per cent rate from April was postponed it would ‘save many jobs and many businesses’.

Google has emailed UK staff urging them to ‘move any planned in-person social gatherings until 2022’ and limiting them to no more than 15 people. 

Ronan Harris, Vice President and MD for Google UK & Ireland, also told workers that face-to-face business meetings and events must be approved by a company director. 

And despite Government guidance saying otherwise, many UK companies have scrambled to reinstate office restrictions including mask wearing in communal areas such as corridors and lifts. 

Boris Johnson listens to a children's choir during the ceremony to switch on the Downing Street Christmas tree lights

Boris Johnson listens to a children’s choir during the ceremony to switch on the Downing Street Christmas tree lights

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the UKHospitality trade body, said the sector could be hammered ahead of its busiest period. She blamed Saturday’s ‘chilling’ press conference, where Boris Johnson announced a new raft of Covid restrictions including compulsory facemasks and rules on self-isolation

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the UKHospitality trade body, said the sector could be hammered ahead of its busiest period. She blamed Saturday’s ‘chilling’ press conference, where Boris Johnson announced a new raft of Covid restrictions including compulsory facemasks and rules on self-isolation

Insurance giant Aviva is introducing daily lateral flow tests for employees. EY is one of a number of big businesses asking staff to wear face coverings when not at their desks.

The Government has been accused of sending more mixed messages on socialising at Christmas after a minister last night said that people should avoid ‘snogging under the mistletoe’ over the holiday. 

It comes after Mr Johnson contradicted Dr Harries by saying that Christmas parties should go ahead, hours after she had said Britons should limit socialising over fears surrounding the new Omicron variant of coronavirus that has emerged.  

Thirty-two cases of the heavily-mutated variant have been found in the UK after it was first discovered in Africa, and it is feared that the strain may be able to evade the protection offered by vaccines and reinfect people who have previously been infected.  

Mr Javid was the first to spark anger from hospitality bosses after he urged partygoers to take a Covid test. The Health Secretary even suggested they should consider wearing a face mask and refused to rule out a Christmas lockdown. 

Ms Coffey then went further, telling ITV’s Peston programme that ‘we should all be trying to enjoy the Christmas ahead of us’, adding: ‘For what it’s worth, I don’t think there should be much snogging under the mistletoe.’ 

‘(You) don’t need to do things like that. But I think we should all be trying to enjoy the Christmas ahead of us and that’s why we’re working so hard to get the deployment of as many vaccines as possible,’ the Pensions Secretary said.

Ms Coffey said kissing should be avoided with ‘people you don’t already know’. 

And it emerged last night that office Christmas parties were already being postponed by organisers who are afraid of the threat posed by Omicron. 

Some employees have also been told to work from home amid fears over the new strain. Events company DesignMyNight has said that festive party cancellations jumped 15 per cent after the prime minister’s first press conference on Saturday – with more after he spoke on Tuesday. 

A string of hotels and restaurants revealed they faced losing thousands of pounds from lost bookings. 

Ministers have been accused of scaring businesses into sending staff home through December and cancelling Christmas parties because of the Omicron strain.

Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope has claimed the Prime Minister’s regulations are ‘part of a scaremongering propaganda campaign that is really designed to restrict or stop interaction between social animals. They’re designed to suppress freedom of the individual and suppress social contact, and they’re doing that through unreasonable fear-mongering.’

Alec Shelbrooke, Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell, said: ‘I have received several emails from travel companies in my constituency whose potential bookings have dropped off a cliff because of the cost of PCR tests’, adding encouragement back towards working from home will be devastating for businesses relying on office workers.

Steve Baker, who spoke out against new coronavirus curbs in the Commons on Tuesday, said the public needed ‘clarity, not Christmas killjoys’.

The Tory former minister added: ‘People are sick and tired of this level of micromanagement of their lives. They want to be free and joyful, and they want to be free and joyful at Christmas – without the Christmas killjoys.’

World Health Organisation officials suggested yesterday that those diagnosed with Omicron so far mostly had no symptoms or only ‘very, very mild’ ones. 

None of the 32 confirmed cases in the UK has been hospitalised. However, ministers have already brought back face masks in shops and on public transport and toughened self-isolation rules. The booster rollout is also to be rapidly accelerated.    

SAGE scientists called for all UK arrivals to be forced to quarantine for five days and take a pre-departure PCR test even if they are fully vaccinated.   



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