Rishi Sunak has unveiled a £1bn ($1.33bn) fund for UK hospitality firms hit hardest by the latest pre-Christmas surge in Omicron cases, including cash grants of up to £6,000 per premises for each eligible company.
The chancellor of the exchequer responded to mounting pressure from business groups on Tuesday to provide further support amid rising cases of the new strain across the country, booking cancellations, and reduced footfall.
He added that the resumption of the statutory sick pay rebate scheme would also help businesses with the cost of sick pay for COVID-related absences. Employers in the UK with fewer than 250 workers will receive compensation for the cost of paying statutory sick pay for up to two weeks.
The hospitality and leisure sectors will be the biggest beneficiaries of the fresh funding, being eligible for one-off grants of up to £6,000 per premises, worth a total of up to £683m for England alone for an estimated 200,000 businesses.
Another £100m of discretionary funding will be made available for councils in England to support companies in other sectors. An extra £30m will be used to help theatres and museums.
“The spread of the Omicron variant means businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors are facing huge uncertainty, at a crucial time,” he said.
He added that the "generous" new support recognised the situation many hospitality and leisure businesses faced in the run-up to Christmas.
It comes as the Treasury has so far provided £400bn to support workers and companies during the pandemic.
On Monday, a further 91,743 COVID cases were reported across the UK, according to the government, the second highest daily total on record.
Mike Cherry, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), welcomed the move: “These positive measures will help alleviate the intense pressures that small firms are currently under, and hopefully arrest a significant decline in confidence over this year.”
Watch: Rishi Sunak unveils £1bn of new funding for firms hit by Omicron wave
Meanwhile, Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said it was a “generous package” that would give “an immediate emergency cash injection for those businesses who, through no fault of their own, have seen their most valuable trading period decimated”.
She added that the boost to funding for suppliers and event and catering companies was “particularly welcome”.
However, businesses in the night-time economy and travel industry have expressed their disappointment with the size of the bailout, with nightclubs in Wales set to be closed from 27 December.
“Businesses are failing, people are losing their livelihoods and the industry is crippled,” Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), said.
“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 the government with a long term strategy for new COVID variants. The open/close strategy is crucifying businesses."
He added: "Every pound of help is much needed. But this package is far too little and borders on the insulting.”