Sunak cuts short California trip after being urged to ‘get on a plane’ to deal with businesses’ fears

Chancellor Rishi Sunak will cut short his trip to California after being urged to “get on a plane” back to the UK amid a growing clamour for support for businesses hit by warnings over Omicron.

Mr Sunak will be returning early from his US stay to hold more talks with business chiefs in response to the fresh COVID crisis on Friday.

He and his team held talks with a range of hospitality and business organisations on Thursday, with many in the industry hit hard by mass cancellations amid fears over the spread of the new coronavirus variant.

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After Thursday’s talks, the chancellor said: “This government has done whatever it takes at every stage to support lives and livelihoods throughout this pandemic – and of course we will continue to do so.


“We understand that this is a concerning time for businesses.

“Myself and my wider team met with business representatives earlier today, listened to their concerns and will continue to work with industry leaders over the coming days.

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“To keep safeguarding our economic recovery and the lives and livelihoods of the British people our priority is now to make sure everyone has the opportunity to get boosted now.”

Mr Sunak had initially been due to fly back to the UK on Friday, but will now get a flight home on Thursday night.

The chancellor is under pressure to respond because, though hospitality firms and shops remain open, they face a slump in trade thanks to Plan B work from home guidance and advice from health officials that people should limit their social interactions.

Earlier, business groups demanded to know what steps Mr Sunak will take with the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) saying they had heard “nothing from the Treasury” since the latest round of interventions – designed to tackle the spread of Omicron – began last week.

The CBI urged ministers to “provide support in lockstep with future restrictions”.

Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, said: “Where on earth is the Chancellor of the Exchequer?” and said latest public health messaging was “taking a sledge hammer to what is usually the busiest period of the year”.

The Resolution Foundation, a think-tank, has called for a targeted version of the furlough scheme – which subsidised wages for temporarily laid-off workers during lockdowns – to be introduced over coming weeks.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told Sky News that people were “doing the right thing” by choosing not to meet their friends in the pub or cancelling planned meals.

“That is hitting hospitality through no fault of their own and therefore the government needs to step up,” Mr Streeting said.

“Instead, the chancellor and the business secretary are nowhere to be seen.

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“So I think it is time for Rishi Sunak to get on a plane, get business leaders and trade union leaders around the table to thrash out a plan, a package of support, to help good hospitality businesses through what will be a very challenging period for them.”

Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds have written to Mr Sunak and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng asking them to help firms facing “closure by stealth”.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of trade union Unite, called for an immediate package of support for hospitality workers.

“The uncertainty the prime minister is causing is devastating – workers don’t know if they will even have a job to go to next week.”

Some Tory MPs are also asking Mr Sunak to offer more help to business.

Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the BCC, said: “Businesses now face the two-punch combination of serious issues with staff absence and plummeting consumer confidence.”

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Restaurants have been reporting mass cancellations over a period when they were hoping for a bumper trade after a dire last couple of years.

The BCC has already called for the VAT rate on hospitality and tourism to be cut back to its emergency rate of 5% and for 100% business rates relief for retailers to return.

The CBI wants to see unspent local authority grants to help affected firms spent now and further help including business rates relief to be on the table if restrictions continue after the government’s 5 January review date.

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A spokesperson for Mr Sunak last night confirmed the chancellor was currently “on a long-planned trip to the US”.

Trade body UK Hospitality has forecast that its members’ takings will be 40% down in December.

Businesses including pub chain Wetherspoons and Currys have already flagged an Omicron hit to trading.

Earlier this week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) called on the UK to be ready to deploy a version of the furlough scheme if business closures are once again ordered.

John Glen, economic secretary to the Treasury – responding to an urgent question from Labour – told MPs that the government was continuing to support firms through VAT and business rates help.