The streets of London were mostly quiet last night as the country continues to self-impose lockdown measures and stay at home in a bid to avoid the highly transmissible Omicron variant ahead of Christmas.
Pictures show bars and restaurants were mostly empty in Soho last night while theatres were almost deserted compared to pre-pandemic levels for the week before Christmas.
Popular hotspots including Leicester Square and Covent Garden saw crowds of tourists braving the cold weather and the Omicron risk to get in some festive cheer in the capital but other areas of the city remained quiet.
Andrew Lloyd Webber confirmed his production of Cinderella had been postponed until next year due to Covid while productions of Hamilton and The Lion King have also been affected.
Major shopping thoroughfares, such as Regent Street and Oxford Street, were far from buzzing with the usual pre-Christmas throng of last minute shoppers searching for the perfect gifts but handfuls of hardy souls were pictured out and about.
It comes after the Chancellor announced grants of up to £6,000 per premises for hospitality and leisure firms being crippled by a wave of cancellations following the emergence of the Omicron strain.
The taxpayer will also cover the cost of statutory sick pay for Covid-related absences for companies with fewer than 250 employees.
Restaurants and bars were mostly abandoned last night as Londoners continued to take part in a self-imposed lockdown in a bid to avoid catching the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus in the final week before Christmas Day
While restaurants are usually brimming with festival revellers at this time of year, Soho remains relatively quiet in comparison
Handfuls of Londoners were spotted out and about but the numbers were far below that of the pre-pandemic festive period
Mr Sunak finally unveiled the support for businesses after bars and restaurants were left deserted following increasingly grim warnings from Chris Whitty and other experts. The spending will make another dent in the public finances, after new figures revealed today that borrowing has risen above forecasts with the economy stalling.
A survey by Ipsos MORI revealed a majority of Britons are now taking matters into their own hands to reduce their chances of catching coronavirus, with 58 per cent saying they have avoided public transport or plan to do so, and 57 per cent saying the same about going to pubs and restaurants, and social gatherings with friends and family.
Local authorities will administer the £683million of hospitality and leisure grants, with 200,000 businesses set to benefit – although the criteria do not seem clear.
Another £102million will go into discretionary funds, again controlled by town halls, and the emergency fund for cultural organisations will get a £30million boost.
The devolved administrations will receive around £150million of funding through the Barnett formula as part of the support announced, with around £80million for the Scottish Government, £50million for the Welsh Government and £25million for the Northern Ireland Executive.
Mr Sunak gave a strong hint that the government will go further if more restrictions are needed, saying they cannot ‘rule anything out’.
It comes as the Chancellor announced support packages would be made available for the struggling hospitality sector
While London’s iconic Oxford Street is usually packed with last-minute Christmas shoppers, this year, the crowds were absent
Regent Street (pictured) was largely quiet with very few pedestrians out doing their last-minute Christmas shopping last night
One of the more popular spots for picking out Christmas gifts for children, Hamleys didn’t pull its usual crowds last night
‘People will be able to look at our track record over the last year or two and supporting people and businesses, especially in the hospitality industry throughout this crisis,’ he told journalists.
‘I will always respond proportionately and appropriately to the situation that we face. People can have confidence in that.
‘Where we are now we’ve responded, I think, generously today, the grants that we’ve outlined up to £6,000 are comparable to the grants that we provided for hospitality businesses when they were completely closed earlier this year. So, there’s a benchmark for you.
‘Also, it’s important to remember we have support already in place that lasts all the way to next spring.
‘So, for example, a reduced rate of VAT for the hospitality and tourism sectors, and this year they are benefiting from a 75 per cent discount on their business rates bill. Those types of things last all the way to next March to support the industry.’
Meanwhile arts industry leaders have hit out at the support as ‘inadequate’ and called for a system of emergency support packages instead.
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, described the newly-announced support as ‘far too little’.
He said: ‘Businesses are failing, people are losing their livelihoods and the industry is crippled. Mixed messaging, coupled with additional restrictions, have had a catastrophic impact on our sector over the last two weeks.
There were crowds of tourists and Londoners at some of the city’s most popular hotspots such as Covent Garden (pictured)
Leicester Square was also fairly busy last night as handfuls of people braved the city’s streets in the week ahead of Christmas
‘At this critical point, we need strong leadership and a clear pathway from Government with a long-term strategy for new Covid variants.
‘The open/close strategy is crucifying businesses. Every pound of help is much needed. But this package is far too little and borders on the insulting.’
While many of London’s theatres were much quieter than the usual pre-pandemic festive period, the Treasury announced that cultural organisations in England can access a further £30 million funding during the winter via the culture recovery fund.
The £1.57 billion CRF was launched in July 2020 with the objective of protecting Britain’s cultural, arts and heritage institutions.
Theatres Trust director Jon Morgan welcomed the announcement of mandatory grants.
He said: ‘The additional mandatory grants of up to £6,000 are also welcome and will be particularly helpful to smaller theatres. We hope that both funds are distributed as quickly as possible to help protect theatres.
‘Theatres across the country are already struggling with shows being cancelled due to infections and falling ticket sales, as audiences follow Government advice to be cautious, so this support is very much needed.’
Paul W Fleming, general secretary of Equity, the trade union for performing arts workers, said: ‘The lack of financial support for the creative workforce in today’s announcement from the Chancellor is a shocking example of Government negligence when Equity members are staring into a winter of cancelled shows, bookings and performances.
‘Many producers, workplaces and artists are ineligible for Cultural Recovery Funding. Instead of another inadequate, vague, headline deal for bosses and buildings, we need an urgent plan to protect all those working in theatre and entertainment industries during this critical Christmas season.’
While there were crowds in Covent Garden, it was far from the size of the crowds usually seen in the week up to Christmas
Leicester Square was one of the capital’s busier areas last night but was still far from the levels usually seen at Christmas time
Pictured: Hardy souls brave the cold and Covid risk to enjoy some festive fun in Leicester Square, London, last night
He said these should include a new furlough scheme for performers and stage management, increasing statutory sick pay and extending it to self-employed taxpayers, and targeted support for creative team members, entertainers and variety artists through new grants.
Head of theatre workers union Bectu, Philippa Childs, said the support would arrive too slowly if it was distributed through the CRF.
She said: ‘The Culture Recovery Fund is not equipped to deal with the rapid response necessary to alleviate the current Covid crisis for theatres and live events. It is focused on buildings not people, is too cumbersome and too slow.
‘We need an emergency support package for our members who are facing another Christmas of work cancellations and uncertainty.’
Greg Parmley, chief executive of Live, which represents music industry venues and the entertainment sector including companies, artists and backstage workers, said: ‘We welcome the news that the Government has started to deliver much-needed financial support, but with the live music sector teetering on the brink, the package falls short of the urgent cash injection businesses need to keep them afloat.
‘The amount of money pales in comparison to the mounting losses faced by the sector and the process will add layers of complexity at a time when businesses are already struggling with skeleton staff rotas and huge losses.’
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said on Twitter: ‘This is vital support that won’t just help protect our cherished theatres, museums & heritage sites, but the tens of thousands of people who work in them.
‘It’s important that we give as much support as we can to creative institutions and ensure that they are still there, standing strong to keep people employed, informed and entertained.’
Andrew Lloyd Webber said he is ‘devastated’ after revealing his production of Cinderella will be cancelled until February
Deaths from coronavirus remain well below the levels from previous peaks, by scientists believe they could rise sharply
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chairman Julian Knight welcomed further support but called for clarity on the likelihood of an imminent lockdown.
He said: ‘More crucial still will be giving clarity for what the likely outlook for Covid restrictions is in the short and medium term.
‘You cannot simply start and stop a production or tour with a few days notice. They need to be planned and are dependent on a reasonable assessment of whether enough people can see it to be financially viable.
‘While additional money is welcome we must also give the entertainment sector the best possible chance of being up and running on its own. Without more clarity this will not be possible.’
It comes as Andrew Lloyd Webber said he is ‘devastated’ after revealing his theatre production of Cinderella will be cancelled until February.
The theatre boss, who has ‘devoted’ his life to musical theatre, was forced to postpone his show until 2022 ‘to avoid more disruption’ as the number of Covid-19 cases rise across the country.
On Twitter, he wrote: ‘Once again, this wretched virus has put paid to the joy of entertaining audiences, something that I hold so dear.
‘Sadly this is the right thing to do, not just for the safety of our cast, musicians and backstage crew, but for the quality of the show we give our audiences who travel long distances and make significant investments to come and see us.
‘Rest assured, Cinderella will re-open as soon as this wave is licked and we know we can give our audiences the fantastic time they deserve.’
Last week, his production of Cinderella was axed due to ‘Covid-related absences’, alongside London productions of hit musicals Hamilton and The Lion King.
Writing in the Daily Mail at the time, Lord Lloyd-Webber said it is ‘simply heart-breaking’ to see the theatre industry ‘decimated’ by Omicron cancellations?, adding ‘no-one in the Government listens’.
The theatre impresario said the whole industry is experiencing the ‘same nightmare’ – from big West End shows to local pantomimes, as well as the restaurants, bars and hotels that benefit from theatregoers.
On Twitter, the production of Cinderella said the cancellations have been ‘incredibly difficult.’
‘The spread of the omicron variant is devastating. Like so many theatres up and down the country, day after day we are forced to make decisions (often at short notice) based on the latest round of test results.
‘To avoid more disruption, and to protect the quality of the show we give our audiences, we have no option but to suspend all performances of Cinderella until 9th February 2022.
‘We are passionately committed to returning sooner if the circumstances improve and we will keep the situation under constant review,’ they added.
The Treasury announced on Tuesday that cultural organisations in England can access a further £30 million funding during the winter via the culture recovery fund.
However, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s newly-announced support for the arts has been widely criticised by the sector.
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, described the support as ‘far too little’.
He said: ‘Businesses are failing, people are losing their livelihoods and the industry is crippled.
‘Mixed messaging, coupled with additional restrictions, have had a catastrophic impact on our sector over the last two weeks.
‘At this critical point, we need strong leadership and a clear pathway from Government with a long-term strategy for new Covid variants.’
Meanwhile, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) welcomed the announcement adding: ‘This is a clear signal that the Chancellor and HM Treasury understand the challenges facing our theatres and other cultural businesses.’
The announcement follows a string of cancelled theatre performances, with The Lion King and Life Of Pi among the West End shows having to dim their lights due to Covid-enforced staff shortages.
After calling on the Government to help an ‘already fragile industry,’ Dame Rosemary Squire, Joint CEO of Trafalgar Entertainment, welcomed the funding, calling it an ‘immediate lifeline’ for some Arts organisations.
She added: ‘However, although appreciated, we need to know of changes to the criteria for the fund, along with any planned further restrictions, before being able to gauge how helpful it is to the theatre sector, in particular commercial producers and productions.
‘Many people are out of work now and productions are closing down in London and around the UK due to Omicron, so we urge the Government to reconsider an immediate return to 5% VAT on ticket sales, business rates relief on cultural buildings and the reintroduction of the furlough and job retention schemes.
‘The road ahead is certainly not a clear one, and more long-term support and funding could be needed in the coming months.’