We need financial help now says Covid-ravaged hospitality sector

The hospitality industry desperately needs Finance Minister Conor Murphy to make good on promises of financial support after Christmas trade that was ravaged by Covid, a representative has said.

Tuesday, 4th January 2022, 6:00 am

Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said his sector can make up to a third of its annual turnover at this time of year.

But due to a disrupted Christmas it is now facing “huge financial pressures”. 

“Difficult is an understatement,” he said of how Christmas has gone for his members. 

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Self-isolating because of omicron infections or close contacts led to high staff shortages in hospitality over Christmas. Photo: Damien Storan/PA Wire

Covid has had a huge impact on customer confidence and on staff shortages through self-isolation, he said.

“You only have to go to social media and you can find nothing but premises closing, opening on reduced hours or last-minute closures because they just don’t have the staff to operate.”

All the previous government support measures are winding up just as the financial year is ending, he noted.

“There are huge financial pressures and unfortunately we are going to require further help.”

Hospitality Ulster's Colin Neill says support promised by the Executive must come urgently.

“We normally do a third of our year’s turnover at Christmas and much of that has been lost. So we have hundreds of millions of pounds in lost trading and that is what pays the bills in January and February when we are traditionally quieter. It is concerning.”

He would welcome the UK following in the footsteps of proposals in America which would see self-isolation periods for people come down to five days, which would ease staff shortage problems.

“The reduction from 10 to seven days here in the run up to Christmas has helped,” he said.

“Obviously we are looking at America who are talking about five days.

“I am no virologist and have no medical qualifications, but if someone with the qualifications can make that decision [for NI] then it should be done here too as soon as possible.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that businesses could see 25% of staff self-isolating in the new year, he said.

“But hospitality is on the frontline so it could be as high as 25-30% for us.

“And it is hugely challenging when businesses have to close because staff that aren’t ill are still needing to be paid.

“Our businesses did not get the opportunity over Christmas to build up any reserves to do that, so we urgently need the help that was promised just before Christmas. We were really grateful for that but we will not survive without that help over the next couple of months.”

Just before Christmas Mr Murphy promised financial support for pubs, restaurants and nightclubs, which were subject to restrictions in a bid to clamp down on the spread of the omicron variant.

Mr Neill said that many smaller hotels were not apparently covered by the minister’s commitment, but are also under severe pressures.

When discussing hotels, he said, most people think of large establishments in Belfast with hundreds of rooms.

“But the fact is that most hotels in the Province are maybe 20 to 30 bedrooms and are food and beverage led.”

He is hoping to be offered an urgent meeting with Economy Minister Gordon Lyons to discuss the issue.

“There is also a huge impact right through our supply lines. They have not been offered any help and obviously they have been left with lots of stock that they have not been able to sell. 

“Our industry has been really badly affected for two years so there is no fat left.”

Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, said Stormont’s High Street vouchers gave “a short term boost to a lot of retailers”.

However, he added: “We are in a difficult situation at the minute, There is no doubt the staff absences due to self isolation is a huge challenge to our businesses and supply chain.

“Whilst I am optimistic for 2022 as a whole I do think we have a huge challenge over the next few weeks with the numbers of omicron increasing and the number of staff absences rising,” he added.

Meanwhile, the number of hospital inpatients in NI with Covid has begun to rise for this first time in almost 40 days.

The number of inpatients had dropped 45% from November 14 to December 23 – from 517 down to 285. But for the six days up to December 29 there was an increase of 13%, rising to 323 inpatients. No figures have yet been released for the subsequent few days.

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