Chancellor Rishi Sunak is facing growing calls to provide extra support to hospitality businesses suffering mass cancellations amid the rising number of COVID infections.
Top health officials have advised Britons to limit their social interactions with others in the run-up to Christmas as the Omicron variant spreads across the UK.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also told people to “think carefully” before attending social events in the coming weeks.
These messages – and the government’s imposition of Plan B measures for dealing with COVID this winter – have led to fears of a huge hit for the hospitality industry at what should usually be their busiest time of year.
Many businesses have reported a spate of cancellations in recent days, including for Christmas parties.
One London restaurant alone was said to have had more than 300 cancellations in the last two days alone.
MPs from across the House of Commons, including Conservatives, have now called on Mr Sunak’s Treasury to step in and give further support to businesses through the coming weeks.
The chancellor was also accused by trade unions of being “missing in action” after it emerged he was on a four-day trip to California this week.
Greg Smith, the Tory MP for Buckingham, warned that the new COVID measures were “going to hit the economy hard”.
“With panic setting in, people are cancelling bookings, so it’s vital government recognises the consequences of these restrictions.
“Much as I hate the idea of yet more state borrowing, the right thing to do is support businesses hit.”
Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves asked: “Where is the chancellor?”
After Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, advised people to “de-prioritise” those social interactions that “mean much less to them”, Ms Reeves added: “Following the science is crucial, but this will hit businesses and workers in sectors like hospitality hard.
“It’s unacceptable that he [Mr Sunak] wasn’t there to outline business support.”
Darren Jones, another Labour MP who is chair of the Commons’ business select committee, said the prime minister’s message to “think carefully” was “the type of vagueness that will make people feel they must cancel their dinner, drinks and other events”.
“Government must turn the financial support for business and workers back on,” he added.
Labour’s London mayor, Sadiq Khan, also said it was “extremely disappointing” that the government had “yet to announce much-needed financial support for businesses facing a wave of cancellations and closures”.
Alison Thewliss, the SNP’s shadow chancellor at Westminster, said MPs “should have heard a plan from the chancellor by now”.
A spokesperson for Mr Sunak confirmed the chancellor was currently “on a long-planned trip to the US conducting government business with back-to-back meetings and roundtables”.
“He is of course in touch with HM Treasury officials all the time and is speaking to representatives from the hospitality industry tomorrow,” they added.
After it emerged Mr Sunak was abroad, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady accused the chancellor of being “missing in action”.
“The Chancellor should be stood next to the prime minister, announcing help to pay wages, save jobs and stop businesses going to the wall,” she told the Daily Mirror.
A Treasury spokesperson said: “We have acted early to help control the virus’s spread – while avoiding damaging economic and social restrictions by allowing businesses to remain open.
“Our £400bn COVID-19 support package will continue to help businesses into spring next year and we will continue to respond proportionately to the changing path of the virus, as we have done since the start of the pandemic.”