'Missing in action' Rishi Sunak to cut California trip short amid business crisis over Omicron
Rishi Sunak will cut his visit to the US short as businesses beg for government support to help them weather a fresh Covid storm sparked by the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
The chancellor was earlier urged by Labour to "get himself on a plane back from California" and address a fresh crisis facing the hospitality industry, which in on its knees as customers cancel bookings following advice from government scientists to reduce social contacts.
After meeting virtually with a number of firms, the chancellor said he "will continue" to support businesses through the pandemic, adding that he "listened to their concerns and will continue to work with industry leaders over the coming days".
He is expected to return to the UK on Friday.
Businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industry, are under huge pressure at what would usually be their busiest period of the year, with the new variant of coronavirus not only causing people to cancel bookings but also putting high number of staff into self-isolation.
Labour shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: "It's really important that the government steps forward with a package of support for hospitality but the chancellor is no where to be seen."
His comments follow reports in the Daily Mirror that the chancellor was on a four-day official trip to the US where he would meet industry leaders from the tech and investment sectors.
Labour's Wes Streeting urged the chancellor to return from the US
After learning he was out of the country, Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O'Grady accused the chancellor of being "missing in action".
"The chancellor should be stood next to the prime minister, announcing help to pay wages, save jobs and stop businesses going to the wall," she told the Mirror.
Mr Sunak was almost instantly urged to return from the trip after a Downing Street press conference in which England's chief medical officer urged people to "de-prioritise" social contacts in order to avoid catching coronavirus and being forced into self-isolation.
"Don't mix with people you don't have to", warned Professor Chris Whitty.
His comments gave people flashbacks of last year's emergency lockdown in December - despite Boris Johnson previously saying this Christmas would be much better than last - and people have already begun cancelling plans.
Much more support was available to people and businesses last year, such as the furlough scheme, however much of that has now expired.
Celebrity chef Tom Kerridge, even before the advice, had been campaigning for the government to support hospitality firms after sharing a video on Twitter showing 654 guests had cancelled their bookings within six days.
The British Chambers of Commerce said on Wednesday Prof Whitty's plea "will almost certainly have an enormous impact for businesses".
"Despite this still we heard no news of any new financial support measures coming from Government to help those businesses, and others badly affected by the current restrictions," said president Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith.
And Jonathan Neame, head of Shepherd Neame, which has 320 pubs and hotels, said on Thursday that his business is now in a "zombie world".
He said mixed messaging from government will lead to "much more acceleration in cancellations."
He added: "The acute problem is that, if you miss Christmas - and we're in the zombie world where we've been desperately trying to hang on to staff and want to hang on to staff - then what could be very profitable could quickly run into a significant loss."
But the prime minister appeared to suggest on Thursday that additional support would not be provided to businesses, saying there is already help available.
"We've kept businesses going throughout the crisis with more than #400 billion worth of support. We'll continue to support business with the Covid recovery loans, with business rate reductions, with VAT reductions, and the best thing we can do is make sure that we get back to normality as fast as possible by getting boosted now."
He added: "We're offering a package and we already have measures in place, supporting businesses through business rate relief, through VAT reductions, the loans that I've described, all that is there, but what we're also saying is that we want to keep businesses going, keep businesses open, as we have done for a long time now through the vaccination programme, and the best way to get back to normality is to get boosted now."
But Labour wants the government to do more.
The party has written to Mr Sunak urging him to provide more support for businesses facing "closure by stealth" amid rising coronavirus fears.
"It is time the government came forward with their plans to ensure our great British businesses and their workers have the clarity and support they need to weather this storm," it said.
Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Pat McFadden lodged an urgent question in the Commons on Thursday, asking the chancellor if he will make a statement on government support for business given the advice to cut social contacts.
In response it was confirmed Mr Sunak will speak with hospitality representatives later on Thursday to "understand their concerns" about new Covid restrictions.
Treasury minister John Glen told the Commons: "The rapid spread of Omicron means that this is a challenging time for a number of sectors, including the hospitality sector.
"The chancellor will be speaking to UK hospitality representatives this afternoon to understand their concerns."
The UK reported its highest ever number of daily, lab-confirmed Covid cases on Wednesday, demonstrating the fast speed at which Omicron spreads.
A further 78,610 cases were recorded on Wednesday, over 10,000 cases more than the previous record of 68,053 on January 8, 2021.
And a jump of 19,000 cases on Tuesday's total is a record daily increase, demonstrating the extremely fast speed at which Omicron spreads.
However, Professor Whitty warned these will not be the last and said "records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks as the rates continue to go up".
"What we've got is two epidemics on top of one another - an existing Delta epidemic, roughly flat, and a very rapidly-growing Omicron epidemic on top of it," he told the press conference.
Watch the Downing Street press conference in full:
The strain is presenting "probably the most significant threat" of the pandemic so far, according to head of the UK Health Security Agency Dr Jenny Harries, and it could place the NHS in "serious peril".
Prime Minister Johnson stopped short of matching England's chief medical officer's warning about cutting down social contacts but urged people to "think carefully" before attending celebrations.
But despite saying people do not need to cancel their plans, the hospitality industry says people are in their droves and is desperate for help.
A Treasury spokesperson said: "As we have done throughout the pandemic, we are closely monitoring the impact of the virus on the economy - and particularly the hospitality sector - which is why the Chancellor is meeting with representatives from the industry today.
"Our £400 billion Covid support package will continue to help businesses well into spring next year, and of course we will continue to respond proportionately to the changing path of the virus.
"To keep safeguarding our economic recovery and the lives and livelihoods of the British people, our priority is now to make sure everyone has the opportunity to 'get boosted now'."