Lancashire business groups welcome £1bn relief for hospitality amid rising cases of Omicron variant of Covid

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Business across Lancashire were breathing a sigh of relief after the Chancellor announced a new £1bn package of support in the pandemic.

Rishi Sunak has unveiled the support package to businesses hit by Covid restrictions amid concerns over the “eye-wateringly high” transmission of the Omicron variant and advice which has seen customers stay away in droves.

The Chancellor has come forward with additional help for the hospitality and leisure sectors in England following days of urgent lobbying from MPs, firms and industry officials after Boris Johnson last week warned people to think carefully about going out ahead of Christmas in his so-called Plan B.

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It includes one-off grants of up to £6,000 per premises for businesses in the affected sectors in England, which the Treasury expects will be administered by local authorities and to be available in the coming weeks.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a £1bn support package for businesses ahead of ChristmasChancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a £1bn support package for businesses ahead of Christmas
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a £1bn support package for businesses ahead of Christmas

The Government also intends to use taxpayers’ cash to cover the cost of statutory sick pay for Covid-related absences for firms with fewer than 250 employees.

Cultural organisations in England can also access a further £30m funding during the winter via the culture recovery fund, the Treasury said.

The announcements have been welcomed by business groups in Lancashire.

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Geoff Mason, Policy Manager at the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce said: “The Chamber network has been lobbying for support to be given to businesses affected by the announcement of Plan B.

Boris Johnson  making his Plan B announcementBoris Johnson  making his Plan B announcement
Boris Johnson making his Plan B announcement

"It is excellent news that the Chancellor has engaged with the problems we have highlighted and we welcome the grants for hospitality and leisure firms. These are businesses that have seen serious reductions in trade and high rates of cancelled bookings.

“If restrictions continue for much longer or are further tightened, the level of support will have to extended and widened to cover other areas of the economy affected by new measures. There must also be some flexibility to respond to any evidence of other sectors who have suffered as a result of Government guidance.”

The Blackpool-headquartered Federation of Small Businesses' national chairman, Mike Cherry, said: “These positive measures will help alleviate the intense pressures that small firms are currently under, and hopefully arrest a significant decline in confidence over this year.

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“With the prospect of one million people sick or self-isolating by January, we encouraged the Chancellor to bring back the COVID statutory sick pay rebate – we’re pleased to see our recommendation taken forward today.

“This move will reduce stress for small employers up and down the country, helping those who are struggling most with depleted cashflow. It’s vital that small firms – once again up against a massively disrupted festive season – can reclaim the costs of supporting staff.

“The Government has also rightly taken forward other aspects of our ten-point plan, with £1bn worth of grant support for the hardest-hit sectors in England, alongside accelerated delivery of the £1.5bn business rates relief fund for supply chains launched months ago."

Mr Sunak’s announcement follows crisis talks with business leaders after he cut short a Government business trip to California.

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Businesses have seen takings plummet due to Christmas festivities being scaled back amid fear over the spread of Omicron.

It comes as Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the global charitable foundation Wellcome, warned “we’re in the most difficult, most uncertain time, perhaps of the whole pandemic, certainly since March of 2020”.

Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, also said the previous rapid increase in cases appears to be slowing and, if that is true, there is no need for a lockdown.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said of the new funding: “With the surge in Omicron cases, people are rightly exercising more caution as they go about their lives, which is impacting our hospitality, leisure and cultural sectors at what is typically the busiest time of the year.

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“That’s why we’re taking immediate action to help with an extra £1bn in grants to these industries and reintroducing our Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme.

“I urge people across the country to please get boosted now to secure vital protection for yourselves, your loved ones and your communities.”

Mr Sunak added: “We recognise that the spread of the Omicron variant means businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors are facing huge uncertainty, at a crucial time.

“So we’re stepping in with £1bn of support, including a new grant scheme, the reintroduction of the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme and further funding released through the culture recovery fund.”

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The extra support builds on existing schemes in place to assist businesses, the Treasury said.

The devolved administrations will receive around £150m of funding through the Barnett formula as part of the support announced, the department added.

This includes around £80m for the Scottish Government, £50m for the Welsh Government and £25m for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Earlier, leading expert Sir Jeremy told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Omicron is spreading unbelievably fast. It is a phenomenal variant, transmission is eye-wateringly high, but there is great uncertainty.

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“What is it going to lead to in terms of pressure on the health system, people going to hospital, people dying, but also what impact is it going to have on the broader society, staff absences, the ability to have functioning other services? So there is great uncertainty.

“My personal view is that I think we can wait at the moment until there are more restrictions formally placed, but each of us can do a lot of things today that would make the chances of further restrictions lighter.

“More data will be available today and tomorrow, and I would act on those if transmission is rising still and if hospitalisations are going up across the country.”