By David Milliken
LONDON (Reuters) -British finance minister Rishi Sunak cut short an official trip to the United States on Thursday in order to consider support for hospitality businesses that are being hit hard by the spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus.
Britain has reported record numbers of new COVID-19 infections for two days running, and on Wednesday England’s chief medical officer warned people not to mix with others unless they have to in the run-up to Christmas.
“My team and I held meetings with the hospitality sector earlier today. We’re listening to their concerns and will continue to work with them over the coming days,” Sunak said in a statement.
A finance ministry official said Sunak would fly back to Britain late on Thursday. He had previously been due to return on Saturday.
Earlier on Thursday opposition lawmakers criticised Sunak for his absence from parliament when they asked one of his deputies, John Glen, if new aid would be coming.
“Circumstances have now changed and we will have to look at the implications of that,” Glen said.
A closely watched survey of purchasing managers published on Thursday showed a hit to hospitality and travel companies this month, sending overall private sector growth to a 10-month low.
Sunak and a deputy spoke on Thursday with trade groups including UK Hospitality and the Confederation of British Industry, as well as hotel and restaurant operator Whitbread (LON:WTB) and restaurant chains Nando’s and Prezzo.
“We stressed to the government this afternoon that help is needed now for the small firms … which are facing the disruption of a tidal wave of Omicron right during the crucial festive trading season,” said Mike Cherry, chair of the Federation of Small Businesses.
Britain has cut back most of the support it offered to businesses during the pandemic. The job-protecting furlough scheme ended on Sept. 30, while the rate of value-added tax (VAT) on hospitality services increased to 12.5% from 5%, and is due to rise again to its pre-pandemic level of 20% from April.
Business groups have called for a reversal of the VAT rise, property tax exemptions and rebates on employees’ sick pay.
($1 = 0.7534 pounds)
UK’s Sunak cuts short U.S. trip to discuss new COVID-19 aid
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