Thorley Taverns boss vows pubs in Kent are 'safest place to go' amid Omicron threat to Christmas gatherings

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Pub bosses in the county say their venues are "the safest place to go out and socialise" amid mounting fears workplaces are pulling the plug on Christmas parties.

It comes amid anxiety over the newly emerged Omicron variant of Covid. There are fears it could be more virulent than previous strains and evade some of the protection offered by the existing vaccines.

The pub industry says it has seen a 'slew of cancellations'. Picture: Shepherd Neame
The pub industry says it has seen a 'slew of cancellations'. Picture: Shepherd Neame

A string of organisations representing the hospitality industry this afternoon said the sector had seen a "slew of cancellations" amid concern over Omicron and urged those planning a night out to stick with their plans.

In a joint statement, UKHospitality, the British Institute of Innkeeping, and the British Beer & Pub Association said: “The full range of hospitality venues across the UK would usually be experiencing their annual bookings bonanza at this time of year, but it hadn’t materialised even before Omicron was first detected.

“The World Health Organisation announcement that Omicron infections are generally mild, plus government promptings for festive gatherings to go ahead as planned, offer a crumb of comfort, and could at least slow the slew of cancellations the sector has experienced in the week since Omicron was discovered.

“We’d therefore urge those with bookings not to cancel them, but to carry on and enjoy their festive season parties, safe in the knowledge that hospitality venues are doing everything they can to ensure people have a safe and fun Christmas and New Year.”

However, the situation has been far from clear in Westminster, with business minister George Freeman earlier today suggesting firms consider whether to hold a festive knees-up this year and, if they do, to limit the numbers. Number 10, however, says parties should go ahead as planned.

Kent hospitality boss fears for sector if more Covid measures imposed over Christmas

Phil Thorley, operations director of Thorley Taverns, which runs 19 venues across Thanet, says he is keeping "fingers, arms and legs crossed" that no further restrictions are introduced.

He said: "Hospitality has proven, during previous lockdowns, that it is the safest place to go out and socialise. Venues are regularly cleaned, and have hand sanitisation.

"As an industry, we have followed, to the the letter, the guidelines from day one.

"If further guidelines are put out we will absolutely follow them. I'd like to think we won't get any more, I think hospitality is a big part of Christmas; going out with your colleagues, friends and family in the festive season is something we'd all like to do."

He admits his pubs have seen a "small number" of bookings cancelled as anxiety levels being to rise.

Pubs are urging people not to pull the plug on their festive bookings
Pubs are urging people not to pull the plug on their festive bookings

He explained: "Research has shown 8% of the population are still not venturing out. Increasing anxiety levels will mean the more nervous of the 92% may think twice before they do."

The hospitality industry is still recovering from the lengthy enforced closures during 2020 and the early part of 2021, which saw them miss the entire festive season last year; normally one of the busiest times of the year.

But Phil Thorley warns with various Covid support measures being phased out for the sector next year, any loss of trade over Christmas could prove catastrophic for some outlets in the county.

He added: "Financially, we can ill afford another lockdown period during what is a good trading period for us.

"Come March 31 next year, we have a whole tsunami of measures coming into place - VAT on food is going up from 12.5% to 20%, national and living wages are going up and the business rates discount we had enjoyed due to the pandemic starts to get eroded.

"So that's three things that will be potentially very challenging for the whole industry and if we were to lose a very valuable trading period then, sadly, I think we're going to look at a lot of pubs and hospitality businesses shutting down and consequently the jobs which go with them."

His views were echoed in recent comments made by Jonathan Neame, chief executive of Faversham pub giant Shepherd Neame.

He said: "Clearly we sincerely hope no further measures are introduced. It's been a terrific battle to build up momentum in the supply chain and in terms of people for the reopening so the last thing anybody wants is to have further restrictions.

"You never quite know as the real concern we've had throughout is that hospitality has been singled out for different treatment to non-essential retail."

Mask wearing in shops and on public transport was reintroduced by the government earlier this week and, the latest figures show, Kent currently has the second highest number of Covid infections in the country.

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