U.K. Offers 1B Pounds to Firms Hit Hardest by Omicron

London (Reuters) -
Barren supermarket shelves as more and more staff get “pinged” on their phones to self-isolate because of contact with coronavirus cases. Grappling with staff shortages amid the so-called “pingdemic,” many businesses, such as supermarket chain Iceland, have had to close some stores. (Matthew Cooper/PA via AP)

Britain announced on Tuesday 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) of extra support for businesses hit hardest by the wave of Omicron variant coronavirus cases, which is hammering the country’s hospitality sector and other businesses.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak said he was confident the measures would help hundreds of thousands of businesses. But he added that he would “respond proportionately and appropriately” if the government were to impose further restrictions to slow Omicron, which would further hit the economy.

Under the support announced on Tuesday, hospitality and leisure firms in England will be eligible for grants of up to 6,000 pounds for each of their premises, accounting for almost 700 million pounds of the new package.

The grants were equivalent to those provided to hospitality businesses when they were fully closed earlier this year, the Finance Ministry said.

A fund to support cultural organizations would be increased by 30 million pounds, while 100 million pounds would be provided to English local authorities for business support measures and 150 million pounds to governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The ministry also said it would cover the cost of statutory sick pay for COVID-related absences, for up to two weeks per employee, for small and medium-sized employers across the United Kingdom.

Britain borrowed more than 300 billion pounds in the last financial year to help it offset the hit to the economy from coronavirus and the government’s lockdowns.

“Of course I will always respond proportionately and appropriately to the situation that we face, people can have confidence in that,” Sunak said when asked by a reporter if there would be more help for businesses in the event of further restrictions.

Asked about the likelihood of more restrictions, Sunak said the situation was too uncertain to know the path ahead.

“What the Prime Minister said is that we’re reviewing the data day by day, hour by hour, keeping the situation under constant review but can’t rule anything out,” he said.

Johnson said on Monday he was looking at all kinds of measures to keep Omicron under control, cautioning that further restrictions might be needed.

Figures from trade body UKHospitality published on Monday showed a 40% fall in takings over the weekend and deep gloom about the prospects for the end-of-the-month sales.

“This is a generous package building on existing hospitality support measures to provide an immediate emergency cash injection for those businesses who, through no fault of their own, have seen their most valuable trading period annihilated,” UK Hospitality Chief Executive Kate Nicholls said.