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Picture: BLOOMBERG
Picture: BLOOMBERG

Bankers hoping to mark the end of a hectic year in the financial markets with a blowout holiday party are set to be disappointed. The Omicron variant is prompting firms to cancel or scale back their end-of-year celebrations in London.

JPMorgan this week called off its festive carols, while the London Bullion Market Association abandoned plans for a black-tie dinner at the Natural History Museum. Accounting firm KPMG has told staff to keep guest lists short and be prepared to cancel plans at short notice.

Omicron has given employees a stark reminder of the risk of infection. Few want to pass the virus on to elderly relatives they may see over Christmas or be required to self-isolate over the festive period. 

“People are a bit more anxious about non-family gatherings — Christmas parties, that sort of thing,” Steven Fine, CEO of broker Peel Hunt, said in an interview. “They want to make sure that everyone in the family are all together over that festive period so, maybe, they might not go to that Christmas party.”

Companies, too, are reluctant to plan costly, large-scale events only to be forced to cancel them at the last minute by the government. That has helped to accelerate a trend towards more intimate events.

At Deloitte, team events are still being planned this year, but will be smaller than before the pandemic. Like NatWest Group and Peel Hunt, the accounting firm stresses that attendance in person will be strictly optional.

‘People’s anxieties’

“Dealing with people’s anxieties is obviously really important,” said Fine. “You’re not forcing them to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.”

Basic precautions are also back in force. Guests at British American Tobacco’s reception at its Thames-side headquarters will have to pass a temperature check and sanitise their hands upon arrival. They will also need to show proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test to gain access.

The increasingly wary atmosphere is a blow to the City’s bars and restaurants, which had been hoping for a festive fillip after last Christmas season was wiped out by the lockdown.

The Ivy, a chain of restaurants with outposts across London, has seen a string of cancellations this week on worries about the variant, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Tables for four at the Canary Wharf branch are available every evening next week.

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly insisted people should not cancel their holiday celebrations, one of his most senior medical advisers this week warned people to avoid unnecessary socialising. A YouGov poll of 1,402 adults in England this week found that while most are unwilling to return to full lockdown rules, 69% support a return to social distancing in pubs and restaurants.

Early data suggests about 10% of party bookings have been cancelled so far, according to trade group UKHospitality. But it cautioned that the trend is slowing, and most still hope to go ahead with their parties.

Hedge funds

Johnson’s own laissez-faire approach means that some pockets of London are still seeing a roaring trade. It is difficult to secure a booking at members’ clubs such as 5 Hertford Street and Oswald’s in Mayfair, a popular spot for hedge fund managers. Regular events like the Christmas quiz at Annabel’s are set to proceed. At the Ned, a five-star hotel in the City of London, bookings for corporate Christmas parties have returned to 2019 levels.

But for much of the Square Mile, the prevailing theme is one of uncertainty, according to Anne Boden, CEO of Starling Bank.

“We’re all sitting here at the moment deciding if Christmas is going ahead,” she said.

Bloomberg News. For more articles like this please visit Bloomberg.com.

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