Omicron dashes high streets’ hopes of bumper weekend before Christmas

Visits to retailers over last weekend before holiday fail to fulfil hope of windfall after pandemic struggles

Last modified on Sun 19 Dec 2021 15.39 EST

Shoppers have pulled back from UK high streets in the crucial final weekend of shopping before Christmas, figures reveal, as the retail and hospitality sectors continue to struggle amid fears over the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

The latest data from retail intelligence firm Springboard showed that visits to retailers around the UK on Saturday and Sunday were up just 0.8% and down 1.8%, respectively, compared with a week earlier, reversing the usual trend for footfall to soar ahead of the big day.

Hopes of a bumper December to compensate for losses over the pandemic have been thoroughly dashed, with the number of overall visits 25.2% lower across all retail sites on Sunday compared with 2019, while for shopping centres they plunged by 32.9%. Saturday’s visits were down 18.1% and 25.2%, respectively.

“Shoppers are clearly cautious about venturing out and are self-censoring,” Springboard’s insights director, Diane Wehrle, said. “All of this drop has been driven by fewer trips being made to high streets and shopping centres, with high streets particularly hard hit.”

Pubs and restaurants have also been suffering since England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, urged the public to keep socialising to a minimum, prompting a swathe of cancellations. The world-renowned chef and restaurateur Michel Roux Jr said the sector was now facing its worst drop-off in bookings since the start of the pandemic.

“This is as bad as March in 2020, the first lockdown,” he told Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday. “The biggest issue for me is the lack of communication from the government, we have been told one thing, the public has been told one thing … it means what should be our most prosperous month as restaurateurs and hoteliers and publicans, is now turning into a loss because people are not turning up.”

The bleak figures will add to pressure on the government, which has been accused of bringing in a “lockdown by stealth” without providing the accompanying financial assistance. Rishi Sunak, who jetted back to the UK from California on Friday, is under intense pressure to intervene.

Roux warned this lack of support could not only affect the nearly 3 million people employed across the hospitality sector, but the wider “ecosystem” of security, cleaners, refuse collectors and suppliers.

According to Springboard, total high street footfall was flat on Saturday and down 5.9% on Sunday, with shoppers in particular avoiding trips to London, where local authorities declared a major incident on Saturday linked to the surge in Omicron cases. It came after Britain reported the largest 24-hour increase in the number of new cases since the pandemic began on Friday.

On the Saturday before Christmas – usually the climax of the entire festive season – footfall was down 0.3% compared with a week earlier and just 1% higher than on 4 December, according to a separate measure by Sensormatic Solutions.

Central London suffered a 13.6% week-on-week drop in visits on Sunday, according to Springboard, while footfall in outer London fell 8.6%. In total, visits to city centres outside the capital dropped by 13.4% in the same period, though smaller high streets benefited from the pullback, with market towns experiencing a 3% increase compared with last weekend. Open-air retail parks were among the few destinations where visits increased, up 4.8%.

Overall footfall on Saturday was 23% higher compared with 2020, while Sunday’s figure was 33.2% higher. That reflects last year’s disastrous festive season with tier 3 Covid restrictions in place across much of the country, and soaring cases, which eventually led to the south-east and east England being put into the strictest tier 4 just days before Christmas.

Meanwhile pub and restaurant bosses are warning that thousands of hospitality firms could go bust by January without financial support. “We don’t know whether we are coming or going in our industry, we are losing business, we are losing livelihoods,” Roux said.

Jeff Galvin, co-owner of Galvin Restaurants, a group of five upmarket venues in London, described the situation for cancellations as “pretty devastating”, telling Associated Press: “For private hires, bigger tables of say eight to 16 people, those have pretty much disappeared. These are the bread and butter for restaurants at Christmastime.”

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