UK diners slump after Omicron hit, staff absences hit record

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LONDON, Jan 13 (Reuters) – British restaurant reservations slumped last week when a wave of COVID-19 cases was near its peak, while COVID-related staff absences hit a record high, data published by the Office for National Statistics showed on Thursday.

The figures underscored the impact of a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant and which hit a peak on Jan. 4. Cases have dropped 19% over the past week, giving some economists confidence that the economic damage caused by Omicron will be contained.

Restaurant reservations in the week to Jan. 10 sank to 88% of their level for the equivalent week in 2020, before the start of the pandemic, from 134% the week before, according to figures from bookings company OpenTable published weekly by the ONS.

Pubs and restaurants have not faced new COVID-19 restrictions in England – unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom – but many patrons have chosen to stay away.

Some 44% of businesses in the food and hotel sector reported an increase in cancellations in December, rising to 64% for businesses in the ‘other services’ category which includes firms such as beauty parlours.

Separate Bank of England data on credit and debit card spending in the week to Jan. 6 – which are not seasonally adjusted – showed a fall to 82% of its February 2020 average from 86% the week before.

Meanwhile, an ONS survey for late December, also published on Thursday, showed that private-sector businesses reported that 2.7% of their staff were absent because they had COVID symptoms or were isolating, the highest since comparable figures began to be collected in June 2020.

Photo – Staff at a restaurant in Soho in London, Britain. EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN

(Reporting by David Milliken Editing by William Schomberg)

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