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Omicron pushes UK to stay home even without government lockdown

LONDON — First, its staff started testing positive. Then came a wave of cancellations as the new Omicron variant hit the British capital. The following week, Alex Thorp decided to cut losses and shut down his wine bar, 161 Kirkdale, early for Christmas, putting the business back on lockdown.

“At this point it’s basically a lockdown anyway,” said Thorp, who returned to home deliveries and take out – a plan he developed in previous rounds of. restrictions.

Once again, the streets have emptied and restaurants have closed in the UK as the Omicron variant breaks new records. Unlike previous closures, however, there is no government mandate to stay at home this time around; people squat on their own fearing they might catch Covid-19 and being forced to spend Christmas in isolation.

This cautious behavior is a blow to retailers and restaurants who had started to recover from previous rounds of restrictions and were counting on strong trading during the holiday season to see them through the months to come. It also highlights how voluntary responses to the virus can shape the trajectory of the pandemic and the approach of governments when grappling with a new variant.

The UK has not imposed a government mandate to stay at home in response to Omicron; London Paddington Station on Tuesday.

“Just as there are uncertainties with immunology and virology, there are also uncertainties with psychology,” said Dr Simon Williams, senior lecturer in people and organization at Swansea University, who has conducted research on public attitudes towards Covid-19.

So far, the UK government has refrained from imposing the kind of tough measures, scientists say, needed to curb Omicron and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, advising people to work from home and exercise discretion.

One in six Britons have canceled a Christmas party in response to the new variant, according to a recent YouGov poll, and almost as many have turned away friends or family.

Some department stores have stepped up sales in a bid to boost foot traffic, which fell 2.6% on major UK shopping streets on what is typically one of the busiest weekends in the year, according to researcher Springboard. The blow was harder in urban centers – down 8.5% in London and 6.4% in cities outside the capital last weekend, compared to the previous one.

Some department stores have increased their sales in an attempt to increase foot traffic; a London street Tuesday.

The number of diners sitting at restaurants in the UK was 9% lower last week than in the same period in 2019, according to data from the reservation service OpenTable. The week before the Omicron variant was announced, it was 15% higher than pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s just not financially viable,” said Jamie Younger, who closed his restaurant, the Begging Bowl, in south London after the bookings collapse. “We would end up losing more money trying to stay open. “

After weaning businesses off life-saving assistance as it seeks to normalize the economy, the UK government has come under new pressure to reintroduce emergency economic policies that have helped businesses weather previous waves of the pandemic . They include an employment support program which has enabled the government to cover the salaries of 11.7 million employees over an 18-month period, at a cost of £ 70 billion, equivalent to £ 93.9 billion. of dollars, to the Treasury.

Foot traffic fell 2.6% on major UK shopping streets, including 8.5% in London, which is typically one of the busiest weekends of the year; Oxford Street in London on Monday.

The Treasury said on Wednesday it would give one-time grants of up to £ 6,000, or around $ 8,000, to businesses in the leisure and hospitality sectors, acknowledging they face uncertainty. He also agreed to cover sick pay for Covid-19-related absences for small and medium-sized businesses across the country.

More support will be needed if the government imposes further restrictions, the companies say. They blame the government for scaring their clients after the UK’s chief medical officer advised people to prioritize the social contacts that mattered most to them.

While voluntary behavior changes can help reduce transmission, Mr Williams said they cannot achieve as much as the top-down restrictions. “You just won’t get and can’t get the level of mobility impaired and mixed advice like you can from the measures,” he said. “The metrics are as good as the level of compliance you get with them. “

A number of studies indicate that Omicron is more resistant to current vaccines than previous variants of Covid, although boosters seem to be helping. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez gets exclusive insight inside a lab testing how antibodies interact with Omicron. Photographic illustration: Tom Grillo

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who faces opposition to tighter restrictions within his own party, has ruled out imposing them before Christmas, while signaling that it may be necessary after December 25.

A recent YouGov poll found that even if mixing with other households was banned on Christmas, nearly half of those polled would not comply. The main reason they cited was that the government is breaking its own rules, reflecting mistrust after leaks appeared to show politicians attending Christmas parties during a lockdown around the same time last year. Others said they had already planned to see family or were sick of the rules.

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Once the danger of Christmas has passed, questions arise as to how well people will adhere to the restrictions as they have grown increasingly accustomed to the virus, in part due to high levels of immunization.

The lightning spread of the new variant was a source of concern for Dan Durham. But the 31-year-old was worried less about the illness or the severity of the virus than the prospect that his plan to host Christmas lunch for 11 with his partner in south London would be ruined.

After 12 people he knows, including his sister and a friend he had spent the day with, tested positive, Mr. Durham decided to take no more risks; he canceled all of his plans and has hardly ventured out of the house since.

“I walked the dog and that’s it,” said Mr. Durham, who works in market research. “We are imposing our own lockdown because we want Christmas Day to continue. “

The Treasury said it would cover sick pay for Covid-19-related absences for small and medium-sized businesses; a central London street on Monday.

Write to Isabel Coles at [email protected]

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