UK has entered ‘lockdown by stealth’ as country begins self-imposed Christmas isolation

Blower cartoon
Blower cartoon

Britain has been pushed into a "lockdown by stealth" ahead of Christmas with people staying away from work and cancelling parties rather than risk contracting Covid-19.

Restaurants, pubs and hotels reported cancellations running at 40 per cent for Christmas parties, while offices were operating at just 12 per cent capacity – the lowest figure since the official lockdown ended last March.

Traffic data suggested the volume of cars on roads during Wednesday’s rush hour dropped to just over half normal figures, while rail passenger numbers plunged to August holiday levels.

With 10 days left until Christmas Day, millions of people have started trying to avoid a coronavirus infection that would force them into isolation over the holiday period.

One analysis claimed that the hospitality industry alone would lose £1.3 billion over the course of December. Searches for “should I cancel my Christmas party?” tripled in the 24 hours between Monday and Tuesday, according to new data from Google Trends.

Empty London - Jamie Lorriman
Empty London - Jamie Lorriman

Tom Kerridge, the chef who runs six restaurants in London, Manchester and Buckinghamshire, posted online printouts of pages showing 176 table cancellations for 654 diners in just one of his restaurants in the run-up to Christmas.

Mr Kerridge wrote: “This is the list of cancellations taken in one of our restaurants in the past six days … 654 guests. I completely understand why and have no problem with them letting us know. The problem is what will the Government do to support the hospitality industry? Many places are going to crumble without help.”

Fred Sirieux, general manager of Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows in London's Mayfair and star of the television programme First Dates, complained of a “tsunami of cancellations” which he warned would be “catastrophic” for the sector.

“Staff will lose their job and income between now and January without any hope of getting a new one,” he said.

Sally Abe, chef at the Blue Boar Pub in Westminster, said it had recorded 110 cancellations on Tuesday alone.

Watch: COVID-19 - IMF tells UK to be ready to redeploy furlough if 'widespread' closures needed to tackle Omicron

Theatres have also been hit hard by the latest Covid wave. Cabaret, the hottest West End theatre ticket, was forced to cancel Wednesday’s matinee performance after a member of the backstage company tested positive. Hex, the National Theatre’s much needed new hit musical, also cancelled performances due to the spread of Covid.

Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Britain’s biggest theatre producer, said: “The last 10 days’ rhetoric and pronouncements have seriously affected forward bookings and just looking round the streets it's obvious that footfall is only a fraction of what it should be for one of the busiest weeks of the year.

“The public have been wonderfully supportive so far but fearsome government rhetoric is naturally making people decide to wait until this is over.”

Empty London - Jamie Lorriman
Empty London - Jamie Lorriman

The hospitality industry has reported an alarming rise in cancellations, with almost two-thirds of Christmas parties called off in London in the past fortnight, according to UKHospitality, the industry trade body. Nationally, the figure runs at about 40 per cent of bookings in hotels and restaurants cancelled.

Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UKHospitality, said: “I think undoubtedly there is a great desire for people to protect a family Christmas and therefore they are adjusting their behaviour accordingly in advance. Consumer confidence is the key. You are seeing restrictions by stealth. Whether it is deliberate or accidental, there is a nudge and people are changing their behaviour as a result.”

The Centre for Economic and Business Research said the cancellations in the hospitality industry equated to a fall of £1.3 billion of sales in December, a drop of 13.2 per cent,

Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, blamed the cancellations on the “disjointed communication narrative from Government”, which he suggested was a "Pseudo Lockdown in all but name”.

Figures from the satnav and transport analytics company, TomTom, showed that rush-hour traffic peaked at 59 per cent of normal levels on Wednesday, compared to 68 per cent on Tuesday morning.

The drop marks a further fall-off in the already sharp decline seen in travel since the Government’s work-from-home guidance came into effect on Monday.

Data from the Department for Transport showed that on Monday, London Underground usage slumped to 50 per cent, down from 56 per cent on the previous Monday. Meanwhile, the number of rail passengers fell back to its lowest levels since August.

Office occupancy rates are at their lowest level since March, when Britain was in lockdown. Freespace, a workplace technology company that analyses occupancy rates, said levels were now at 12 per cent. “Our data clearly shows that more workers have returned to working from home since the Government’s announcement,” it said.

The UK is also moving towards “de facto” school closures despite government assurances, MPs were told on Monday, as unions were blamed for waging a "disgraceful campaign of intimidation” against parents and pupils.

Robert Halfon, the Tory chair of the education select committee, urged the Government to create an “army” of volunteers to ensure schools remain open if teachers are off sick.

He told the Commons that the “four horsemen of the education apocalypse have been galloping towards our young people in the form of a widening attainment gap, an epidemic of mental health problems, a rise in safeguarding hazards and a loss of life chances. Despite the Government assurances, it seems to me sadly that we are moving towards de facto school closures.”

Meanwhile, Downing Street said that parents should not take their children out of school before term ends.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said it is “important” that schools and parents "don't take precautionary steps to deprive their children of education”.

Watch: Conservative MP accuses the government of running a “ministry of fear” ahead of a vote on new COVID-19 restrictions