The UK's hospitality industry faces being crippled by cancellations after stern messages from health chiefs to reduce people mixing took their toll.
Some restaurants, including high-end Middle East restaurant chain Noura, have had up to 80 per cent of their bookings ripped up at a key time of year.
Britons have been told to prioritise the events they attend to reduce the spread of Omicron, which is putting the National Health Service under immense pressure.
England's Chief Medical Officer, Prof Chris Whitty, is advising people not to mix “with people you don't have to" to protect the things that "really matter to you".
Prof Whitty urged people to cut down on socialising over the Christmas period, saying he would “strongly encourage” people to take tests before visiting vulnerable people, and to meet in areas of good ventilation or outdoors if possible.
With the hospitality trade facing substantial losses as a result of sudden cancellations, Prof Whitty was questioned by MPs on Thursday on Christmas party and football match attendance.
"I'm trying to avoid making other people's choices for them but I think people should prioritise what really matters to them and then cut down on the things that don't," he told MPs "If for some people it may be that what really matters is going to the office party, fine," he said. "But people want to protect the time that is most important to them."
The Queen announced on Thursday that she has cancelled her family's pre-Christmas lunch. It comes as Britain reported 88,000 infections on Thursday, its highest number of daily new cases since the pandemic began.
The warnings have drawn concern from the hospitality sector as people weigh up whether to risk nights out or cancel their plans to improve their chances of spending Christmas with family.
The chief secretary to the treasury will hold an online meeting with hospitality chiefs today. The prime minister's spokesman said: "We recognise that the prevalence of this variant and its high transmissibility is leading to further challenges for the hospitality sector in particular.
"That's why we want to hear their concerns."
Two years on from the start of the pandemic that all but destroyed the sector, this festive season was considered a much-needed lifeline.
Yet Covid-19’s resurgence resulting from the new Omicron variant coupled with the UK government’s mixed messages on socialising have raised fears for the future of restaurants instead.
People are choosing to avoid parties and restaurants to avoid catching or spreading the virus. Anyone who tests positive now would face being in isolation at Christmas.
Noura's manager, Mariana Chehab, told The National: “Most of the large bookings have gone. Birthdays, Christmas parties, get-togethers are being called off one after the other.”
She estimated that 80 per cent of their bookings across their sites in London’s Mayfair and Belgravia areas had been axed in the past two weeks.
British star chef Tom Kerridge also sounded the alarm over the future of restaurants, saying they would “crumble” without government help after revealing more than 650 cancellations at one of his eateries in less than a week. The Michellin-starred chef called for help amid growing fears of a potential New Year lockdown.
The wave of cancellations is sweeping through food and beverage establishments, who fear another lockdown will be the final nail in the coffin for the struggling industry.
The writing was on the wall even before the UK's new Plan B restrictions came into effect on Monday.
Last week, Al Waha restaurant in London's Notting Hill neighbourhood said more than 10 large table reservations made for December had been cancelled in a week after new travel restrictions and testing requirements were imposed in the UK.
On Wednesday, the UK recorded 78,610 coronavirus cases, the highest daily total since the start of the pandemic as England's chief medical officer said that the country faced “two epidemics on top of each other”.
“I’m afraid we have to be realistic that records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks as the rates continue to go up,” he told a televised briefing alongside Boris Johnson, the prime minister.
The government introduced tighter rules on mask-wearing and testing under Plan B measures brought in on Monday, but Mr Johnson is still hoping that a ramped-up booster vaccine drive will mitigate against the worst effects of the fast-spreading variant.
On Thursday, Prof Whitty gave a glimmer of positive news when he said he anticipates that the height of the Omicron wave will fall faster than previous Covid-19 peaks.
He told the Commons Health and Social Care Committee: “I think what we will see with this – and I think we are seeing it in South Africa – is that the upswing will be incredibly fast, even if people are taking more cautious actions, as they are.
“That will help slow it down, but it’s still going to be very fast.
“It’ll probably therefore peak really quite fast. My anticipation is it may then come down faster than previous peaks, but I wouldn’t want to say that for sure.
“I’m just saying that that is a possibility.”
Mr Johnson insisted his government has “kept business going” through the pandemic.
On Thursday the prime minister said: “We’ve kept businesses going throughout the crisis with more than £400 billion ($534.32 billion) worth of support. We’ll continue to support business with the Covid recovery loans, with business rate reductions, with VAT reductions, and the best thing we can do is make sure that we get back to normality as fast as possible by getting boosted now.”
Nevertheless, the warning messages from scientists have already reached customers who are deciding to forgo indulging in the season’s usual festivities.
Ms Chehab thinks the government should “scare people less” and says their restaurants are “super safe".
“We are taking all the necessary precautions, our waiters wear masks, we have social distancing in place, we clean regularly. We are doing our best and it really is a safe space,” the restaurant manager said.
For restaurateurs, the messages are unhelpful, because without official restrictions in place, the hospitality industry is unprotected.
Michelin-star chef Jason Atherton said his restaurant had lost 40 per cent to 50 per cent of its bookings “in the most important part of the year” for hospitality and criticised the government for not “giving support to business already buried in debt".
The owner of Al Basha restaurant in London’s Knightsbridge area told The National that many of his Middle Eastern clients had cut short their visits to the UK capital while others were staying away out of fear.
“The government has to help somehow because it is a real struggle, particularly in planning our expenditures,” said Magdy Khalil, with more than 40 per cent of his reservations for December already cancelled.
“Nobody knows what to do about it. The way the government talks about the variant scares people more.”
British Chambers of Commerce president Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith said that Prof Whitty’s plea “will almost certainly have an enormous impact for businesses”.
“Despite this still we heard no news of any new financial support measures coming from government to help those businesses, and others badly affected by the current restrictions,” she said.
And the head of Shepherd Neame, which has 320 pubs and hotels, said on Thursday that his business is now in a “zombie world”.
Health minister Gillian Keegan insisted on Thursday that there are still measures in place to help businesses through the pandemic.
She told Sky News: “So we’ve still got VAT reductions, we’ve still got business rate cuts of 66 per cent, and we’ve still got recovery loans in place.”
Prof Andrew Hayward, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said a balance has to be found between “the impact on the economy, the impact on people’s social lives and the impact on the virus and subsequent hospitalisations”.