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The Omicron strain may be spreading faster in England than in SA, with UK cases of the variant possibly topping 60,000 a day by Christmas, according to epidemiologist John Edmunds. Picture: BLOOMBERG
The Omicron strain may be spreading faster in England than in SA, with UK cases of the variant possibly topping 60,000 a day by Christmas, according to epidemiologist John Edmunds. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Prepare for Omichristmas. Even amid concern about the new Covid-19 variant and increased restrictions, many consumers will still pull out all the stops to make up for 2020.

Not everyone is on board, of course. In the UK, even before Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to trigger his so-called “Plan B”, there were signs of caution in travel, drinking and dining. Trade body UKHospitality said anecdotal evidence pointed to lost bookings in direct response to the variant. This has been echoed by Azzurri Group, which owns restaurants Zizzi, ASK Italian and Coco di Mama. It has seen cancellations increase since the end of November, particularly among big groups and in city centres, which had been recovering nicely.

Travel company TUI, whose biggest markets are the UK and Germany, said on Wednesday that the variant was hitting winter holiday sales, after they had rebounded strongly. This echoes comments from EasyJet, which said it had seen a “softening” in demand to the end of 2021, with some customers transferring their bookings into early 2022. Domestic travel was holding up, as was demand for beach holidays next northern hemisphere summer, but there was more of an effect from the variant on international city breaks.

Some people are already avoiding the office again — a backwards step for businesses dependent on commuters that had been seeing their sales steadily grow. (Some hairdressers have seen customers put off their pre-Christmas appointments.) Recent work-from-home guidance and other restrictions such as vaccine passports for large venues could see that nervousness increase further. 

Yet even as recently as last week, London pubs and restaurants still looked busy. While some people, particularly older customers, are being more cautious, others are pressing ahead with their plans. Azzurri has seen some big parties bring forward their booking from the week before Christmas to an earlier date, rather than cancel — the fear being that we’ll see another lockdown. 

This resolve underlines the prevailing mindset this Christmas. People want to see friends and family, and spoil them with gifts, to compensate for the dismal final quarter of 2020. Not only were restaurants, pubs and stores shut for much of the time, but strict restrictions meant many families could not physically get together over the holiday.

A modest cutting back on socialising would be good for retail. If Brits choose to stay home rather than eat out, or even cancel a winter sun getaway, that means buying more pigs-in-blankets and other party foods from supermarkets. Unless gatherings are cancelled altogether, they will continue to buy gifts for relatives they may have only seen on Zoom last year. Even small secret Santa presents are making a comeback. And amid supply chain worries, shoppers have already done their buying.

What emerges on Omicron in coming days will determine what the final wave of 2021 consumer spending looks like. After hospitality businesses missed out on their most lucrative trading period in 2020, and given the high expectations for the so-called golden quarter this year, a significant scaling back would be a double blow.

But unless case numbers rise even faster, or the government moves on from Plan B to a full-on lockdown, it looks like Omicron will be no match for revenge Christmas.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion



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