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Chancellor announces £1bn support package for COVID-hit businesses

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a new support package worth £1bn (€1.2bn/$1.3bn) to help businesses impacted by the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

Companies across the hospitality and leisure sectors have been hit by a decline in footfall in recent weeks due to consumers’ concerns about the variant, while many have also reported widespread cancellations of bookings at what is traditionally their busiest time of the year.

The introduction of the support package will allow hospitality businesses such as pubs and restaurants to apply for cash grants of up to £6,000 per premises.

Businesses outside leisure and hospitality can also apply to local councils for separate grants under the Additional Restrictions Grant, which has been topped up with an additional £102m.

It was also confirmed that the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme will be reintroduced, with businesses that have less than 250 employees able to claim money to cover sick pay for workers affected by COVID-19.

In addition, an extra £30m will be made available for arts organisations through the existing Culture Recovery Fund.

According to the BBC, Sunak said that the new support was “generous”, but stopped short of saying whether more support would be available if further restrictions were to come into effect in the coming weeks.

Prime Minister Bosin Johnson last night (21 December) confirmed no new measures would be introduced before Christmas, but did not rule out further restrictions if cases continue to rise and pressure on the NHS increases.

Responding to the new package, Greg Parmley, chief executive of LIVE, the umbrella trade association representing the UK’s live music business, welcomed the support, but said more was needed to ensure businesses remain afloat.

“We welcome the news that the government has started to deliver much-needed financial support, but with the live music sector teetering on the brink, the package falls short of the urgent cash injection businesses need to keep them afloat,” Parmley said.

“The amount of money pales in comparison to the mounting losses faced by the sector and the process will add layers of complexity at a time when businesses are already struggling with skeleton staff rotas and huge losses.

“We have been down this path earlier in the pandemic, with extensive form filling and application processes, by which point it will likely be too late. What we really need is an urgent boost that can help today by leaving money in businesses, such as an emergency reduction in VAT and deferral of loan repayments.”

The Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and UK Theatre also welcomed the financial support but urged consumers to keep booking tickets to shows if they were able to and comfortable doing so.

“Whilst the new funding is most welcome, it is now crucial that DCMS works with the theatre sector to ensure funds are targeted to the businesses and individuals that need it most, including those currently ineligible for the CRF (Emergency Resource Grant),” the organisation said.

“If the situation continues to escalate, further assistance will be needed.

“During this festive period – always a crucial time for the health of our sector – we urge the public to keep booking tickets if they are able to do so and enjoy some much-needed respite in these difficult times.

“Our theatres are operating under industry-wide See it Safely measures, and full refunds or exchanges will always be offered if a performance is cancelled.”

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