UK restaurants report fewest diners since COVID-19 rules eased

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FILE PHOTO: People sit at an outside restaurant area, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions ease, at Covent Garden in London,

LONDON (Reuters) -British restaurants reported the lowest number of diners last week since COVID-19 restrictions eased in May, amid a surge in cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, data showed on Thursday.

The average number of seated diners in the week to Dec. 13 was 2% above its level in the equivalent week of 2019, down by 3 percentage points on a week earlier, according to weekly data from OpenTable published by the Office for National Statistics.

Government health officials on Wednesday told people to scale back social engagements, after the fast-spreading Omicron variant pushed the number of new daily COVID-19 cases to its highest since regular testing was available in mid-2020.

British business groups have called for targeted support for the hospitality industry during what is normally one of its most profitable times of year.

Preliminary purchasing managers' industry data for the services sector in December, also released on Thursday, showed activity growth sank to a 10-month low as Omicron hit travel and hospitality companies.

Separate figures from market researchers Springboard, released by the ONS, showed retail footfall fell by 1 percentage point in the week to Dec. 11 to 82% of its 2019 level.

Consumer spending on credit and debit cards, provided by the Bank of England and not seasonally adjusted, dropped 6 percentage points in the week to Dec. 9 to 115% of its level in February 2020, after a Black Friday boost a week earlier.

(Reporting by David Milliken, Editing by Kylie MacLellan and Paul Sandle)