Rishi Sunak has been urged to “get on a plane” back to the UK amid a growing clamour for support for businesses hit by warnings over Omicron.
The chancellor is under pressure to respond because, though hospitality firms and shops remain open, they face a slump in trade thanks to Plan B work from home guidance and advice from health officials that people should limit their social interactions.
Business groups have demanded to know what steps Mr Sunak will take with the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) saying they had heard “nothing from the Treasury” since the latest round of interventions, designed to tackle the spread of Omicron, began last week.
The CBI urged ministers to “provide support in lockstep with future restrictions”.
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, said: “Where on earth is the Chancellor of the Exchequer?” and said latest public health messaging was “taking a sledge hammer to what is usually the busiest period of the year” for firms in the sector.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told Sky News that people were “doing the right thing” by choosing not to meet their friends in the pub or cancelling planned meals.
“That is hitting hospitality through no fault of their own and therefore the government needs to step up,” Mr Streeting said.
“Instead, the chancellor and the business secretary are nowhere to be seen.
“I understand the chancellor is currently out of the country.
“So I think it is time for Rishi Sunak to get on a plane, get business leaders and trade union leaders around the table to thrash out a plan, a package of support, to help good hospitality businesses through what will be a very challenging period for them.”
Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds have written to Mr Sunak and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng asking them to help firms facing “closure by stealth”.
They said: “Following the science is crucial, but this will hit businesses and workers hard, especially in sectors like hospitality and leisure.”
Some Tory MPs are also asking Mr Sunak to offer more help to business.
Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the BCC, said: “Businesses now face the two-punch combination of serious issues with staff absence and plummeting consumer confidence.
“Until now the Treasury has stepped up at every stage of this crisis to help offset restrictions that limited business’ ability to trade fully, which is what makes its complete absence at this crucial moment all the more baffling.
“Many of these firms, who have survived nearly two years of challenging trading conditions, are now seeing their vital festive income melt away in front of their eyes.”
The BCC has already called for the VAT rate on hospitality and tourism to be cut back to its emergency rate of 5% and for 100% business rates relief for retailers to return.
Rain Newton Smith, the CBI’s chief economist, said: “Implementing Plan B was the right thing to do – but it has dented demand and consumer confidence.
“And further support for struggling firms will be needed if fresh government public health measures prevent firms trading their way to recovery.”
The CBI wants to see unspent local authority grants to help affected firms spent now and further help including business rates relief to be on the table of restrictions continue after the government’s 5 January review date.
A spokesperson for Mr Sunak last night confirmed the chancellor was currently “on a long-planned trip to the US”.
He is expected to speak to representatives from the hospitality industry today and is fly back to the UK on Friday.
Trade body UK Hospitality has forecast that its members’ takings will be 40% down in December compared with pre-pandemic levels.
Businesses including pub chain Wetherspoons and electricals-to-mobile retailer Currys have flagged an Omicron hit to trading.