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The Christmas period has always been a windfall for the hospitality industry but nearly two years on from the start of the pandemic that all but decimated the sector, this festive season was a much-needed lifeline.
Yet fears of a Covid-19 resurgence resulting from the new Omicron variant have quashed restaurateurs' hopes of a business boon as cancellations pour in across eateries in the UK capital, and the need to wear masks puts people off shopping in-person.
Al Waha restaurant in London's Notting Hill neighbourhood said more than 10 large tables reservations made for throughout December had been cancelled in the past week after new travel restrictions and testing requirements were imposed in the UK.
“Because we are based in central London we’re quite dependent on tourism especially for Christmas period so we have been really affected,” the restaurant’s manager, Shwan Rahman, told The National.
Looking to a Christmas miracle, he says he is “praying to God and hoping for the best”.
The discovery of the Omicron variant has resulted in speculation about how people in the UK should approach celebrations over the festive period. Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted there was “no need” to cancel events in the run-up to Christmas, urging people to take a “follow the guidance” set out by the government.
He followed that up on Tuesday by insisting it was still fine to hold Christmas parties, despite announcing tougher Covid restrictions known as Plan B, which requires people to work from home, wear face masks in most indoor venues and proof of vaccination to enter larger venues.
The prime minister’s words are not very reassuring to businesses that are heavily reliant on travellers coming from abroad.
Owner of Al Basha restaurant in London’s Knightsbridge area told The National that many of his Middle Eastern clients were cutting their visits to the UK capital short while others who would normally be visiting during this period are staying away.
“The government has to help somehow because it is a real struggle, particularly in planning our expenditures,” said Magdy Khalil, with 40 per cent of his reservations for December have been cancelled.
“We still have clients now but I don’t know what will happen in January and February if there are no tourists in the country, nobody understands anything at the moment, it’s really difficult,” said the owner. whose business was dealt a further blow in October when torrential rains flooded his restaurant.
He said more and more customers are opting for home deliveries and many of those who do turn up at the restaurant insist on using disposable cutlery.
“People are scared to come to the restaurant, I think because of the new variant,” he said. “Nobody knows what to do about it. The way the government talks about the variant scares people more.”
Nellie Simons, manager of Beautyspot salon in Knightsbridge, said business has been so slow in recent weeks that she has advised staff to take holidays – something previously unheard of in the run up to Christmas.
She said cancelled Christmas parties at nearby hotels have had a knock-on effect on the businesses as guests no longer require hair and beauty services before events. She said this has forced her to cancel contracts with freelancers.
“People are really afraid, they are very cautious,” Ms Simons said. “Omicron means we’re just stuck again, back to the same place where we began.”
May Almihdar, owner of Brush Blow Dry Bar in Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, said Middle Eastern clients account for about 90 per cent of her customers and many have cancelled their appointments in the wake of the new testing requirements for international travel.
“We’ve had a lot of cancellations," she said. “We just hope for no lockdown and no restrictions because it will just kill us.”
Mohamed Osama, manager Freej Swalieh Kuwaiti restaurant in Brompton Road, Knightsbridge, said one recent group of Arab guests were so scared of catching Covid they got up and left the restaurant. “People are afraid,” he explained. “We are also concerned in case they put restrictions back on.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs on Monday that none of the Omicron variant cases identified to date had resulted in hospital admission.
His optimistic tone contrasted with Prof Tim Spector, the founder of the Zoe Covid study app, who said within 10 days Omicron cases in the UK are on track to exceed those in red-listed countries.
Sustainable fashion boutique Societe in Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, has imposed a strict appointment-only policy since the emergence of Omicron to protect staff and ally customers' fears.
Co-owner Hannah Burton, said the area is like a ghost town compared to what it used to be and business is down by about 60 percent.
“This street used to be so busy but most people don’t live here permanently so are off on their yachts or at their holiday homes,” she said The National. “The street was booming, thriving. Now, it looks like things are going backwards as people are scared.”
While the new variant and a rise in infection rates have undoubtedly affected people’s hospitality plans, not every business is reporting losses.
Antonio Coppola, vice president of operations and executive chef at Ciro’s Pomodoro on the same street, said in recent weeks he has seen an uptake in people keen to socialise and enjoy live music.
“They want to book more because they’re afraid of a lockdown. They want to squeeze it in,” he said.
The restaurant owned by Ciro Orsini has over the past 45 years been frequented by many household names and foreign dignitaries keen to dine away from the paparazzi.
And John Farrell, assistant manager of Chisou Japanese Restaurant in Beauchamp Place, said the venue is still receiving a steady stream of patrons through its doors.
However, he said if the government reimposes social distancing and mask rules for restaurants it may deter some people from eating out. “People don’t want to be wearing face masks and the scanning of QR codes was a whole lot of hassle for us,” he said.
Beyt Al Zeytoun restaurant in West London said it was “busier than ever” and the prime minister’s guidance for people to “use their individual judgment” may yet keep hospitality businesses bustling this December.
As scientists continue to assess the impact of Omicron on people's health, it remains to be seen just how much this new strain will scupper hopes of a merry Christmas.
Despite the government’s official line on socialising, government ministers and public health officials have delivered varying thoughts on what the festive season should look like this year.
Last week, science minister George Freeman said that he and his parliamentary team decided it is "probably sensible" to hold their Christmas party online.
"We've decided this year that it is probably sensible to do it by Zoom and wait for the spring," he said.