UK offers 1 billion pounds to firms hit hardest by Omicron

The support package includes grants up to £6,000 for each hospitality and leisure premises and additional aid of £30 million for cultural organisations.
UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, UK, 3 November 2021.
UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, UK, 3 November 2021.

Britain announced on Tuesday £1 billion ($1.3 billion) of extra support for businesses hit hardest by the wave of Omicron variant coronavirus cases, which is hammering the country's hospitality sector and other businesses.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak said he was confident the measures would help hundreds of thousands of businesses. But he added that he would "respond proportionately and appropriately" if the government were to impose further restrictions to slow Omicron, which would further hit the economy.

Under the support announced on Tuesday, hospitality and leisure firms in England will be eligible for grants of up to £6,000 for each of their premises, accounting for almost £700 million of the new package.

The grants were equivalent to those provided to hospitality businesses when they were fully closed earlier this year, the finance ministry said.

A fund to support cultural organisations would be increased by £30 million, while £100 million would be provided to English local authorities for business support measures and £150 million to governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The ministry also said it would cover the cost of statutory sick pay for COVID-19-related absences, for up to two weeks per employee, for small- and medium-sized employers across the UK.

Britain borrowed more than £300 billion in the last financial year to help it offset the hit to the economy from the coronavirus and the government's lockdowns.

"Of course, I will always respond proportionately and appropriately to the situation that we face, people can have confidence in that," Sunak said when asked by a reporter if there would be more help for businesses in the event of further restrictions.

Asked about the likelihood of more restrictions, Sunak said the situation was too uncertain to know the path ahead.

"What the prime minister said is that we're reviewing the data day by day, hour by hour, keeping the situation under constant review but can't rule anything out," he said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday he was looking at all kinds of measures to keep Omicron under control, cautioning that further restrictions might be needed.

Figures from trade body UKHospitality published on Monday showed a 40% fall in takings over the weekend and deep gloom about the prospects for New Year's Eve.

"This is a generous package building on existing hospitality support measures to provide an immediate emergency cash injection for those businesses who, through no fault of their own, have seen their most valuable trading period annihilated," UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said.

(Reporting by William Schomberg and James Davey)