‘I’ve refunded 200 people this week’ - Bristol businesses grapple with cancellations sparked by Omicron

<p>A member of staff serves pints of beer to an outside table in Bristol (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)</p>

A member of staff serves pints of beer to an outside table in Bristol (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Bristol businesses hit by cancellations and a drop in bookings due to fears over the Omicron variant say they are ‘exhausted’ and ‘don’t know what to do’ after what has already been an ‘almost impossible’ two years.

Before the pandemic, the run-up to Christmas would spell the busiest time of year for those working across the hospitality sector.

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Boris Johnson stressed that people should not cancel social events like Christmas parties, and also said other events like school nativities should go ahead.

But many are opting to cancel Christmas parties, gatherings and getaways after the Omicron strain was found to be more infectious than previous variants while England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty branded it a ‘serious threat’.

‘I’ve had two years of this and am exhausted with it all’

Paul Kemp, owner of Beerd Craft Beer and Pizza on St Michael’s Hill, said he had refunded around ‘200 people in the last week’.

He told BristolWorld: “I’m fatigued, to be honest. I’ve had two years of this and I’m exhausted with it all.

“I had four businesses before the pandemic began and now I’m down to one.

“The cancellations we’ve seen are mostly for work gatherings. I can understand that, particularly when it’s a group of medics working in the NHS.

“Some people do still want to come back and the new availability is being taken up by smaller groups.

Beerd Craft Beer and Pizza on St Michael’s Hill.

“But put it this way, this is the last Friday before Christmas Eve and usually I’d be full - now I’ve got four bookings, and one for tomorrow which is a Saturday.

“The parties that happen now would fill the bank account for next month, as nobody tends to spend money in January, even before the pandemic.

“But now that nest egg that I and I’m sure most businesses rely on is gone. We’re luckier than others as we’ve taken measures to protect ourselves in case this happened, but it is difficult.

“Right now I’m just coming from a place of, how can I protect my staff while making a bit of money? And going from there.”

‘It’s not just cancellations - some people simply don’t turn up’

Bradd Francis, landlord of the Highbury Vaults pub in Kingsdown, said: “We don’t really know what to do.

“We had cancellation upon cancellation as soon as it was announced that people should work from home where they can.

The Highbury Vaults in Kingsdown.

“But worse than that, some simply don’t turn up. It means that I have staff waiting around doing nothing, and whatever food is already prepared goes in the bin.

“Christmas has been ruined again, but we’ll survive. I just worry for other businesses because for some this is going to be an absolute killer.”

‘I feel like I am in a recurring nightmare’

Natalie Issacs, operations director of the Bar 44 chain which has a restaurant in Bristol, said she felt like she was living a ‘recurring nightmare’ as coronavirus threatens to shut down hospitality again.

She said the chain had been hit by a whopping 3,200 cancellations in December and called for clearer guidance from the government.

She tweeted: “It is the ‘you can go out but don’t’ message that is killing us.

Bar 44 in Clifton.

“Have lessons not been learnt since March 2020 when we all lost tens of thousands of pounds with similar messaging?

“How much more can we take? Closing us will be too late for support.”

‘Businesses are already desperate after an almost impossible two years’

Thangam Debonnaire, MP for Bristol West, said she had lauched a consultation for businesses in her constituency in light of the ‘Christmas crisis’.

She said: “The hospitality industry usually relies on the busy period at Christmas to balance the books over the year.

“But rising fears about Covid are increasingly deterring customers from bars, restuarants and nightclubs.

“I know many of Bristol’s fantastic hospitality businesses are desperate after an almost impossible two years, where they have had to cope with lockdowns, changing government restrictions, cautious customers, staff illness and then staffing shortages this year.

“All this has left many businesses struggling to catch up, even before the Omicron wave became apparent.

“And it’s not just the hospitality sector that is affected. All kinds of businesses, from beauticians to taxi drivers, are likely to see a change in custom.

MP for Bristol West, Thangam Debbonaire.

“From working to support Bristol businesses over the last two years, it is clear how serious the impact could be. Christmas party and event cancellations are already hitting the revenue of bars and restaurants.

“The rapidly changing situation is also likely to pile costs on businesses that have stocked up in anticipation of a busy period, only for this stock to expire – as happened when restrictions suddenly changed in Bristol previously.

“And for events that do go ahead, illness and Covid isolation is likely to make it hard to find staff.”

‘I would urge people to think again and support the hospitality sector’

Bristol Hoteliers Association chair Raphael Herzog urged people to keep their bookings in order to keep the city’s hospitality sector afloat.

He said that staff had been working hard to ensure their premises were Covid safe and that ‘t’s safer to stay in a hotel having a drink at a table, with dinner served, than it is visiting a shopping mall or a grocery store’.

He added: “It’s one thing for the Prime Minister to say people should not cancel their parties, but we would like the government to go further, and to emphasise just how much time and money has been spent by hospitality businesses in creating safe environments.

“As soon as the new Omicron variant started to spread, it was noticeable how cautious people were being with booking events for Christmas.

Bristol Hoteliers Association chair, Raphael Herzog.

“Even bookings for people to get away as a couple was much slower than we had anticipated.

“Corporate events were not being booked at anything like pre-pandemic levels and lots of events that were booked have been cancelled, as companies are worried about being see to be putting staff at risk.

“The significant loss of the trade we were hoping for this Christmas will be another blow to our sector, so I would urge people to think again and support the hospitality sector by booking parties and hotel stays.

“We put the safety of everyone who visits, stays at or works at our premises as the highest priority.”