Omicron dims London's holiday lights

People walk across Westminster Bridge in London on Dec 15, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (NYTIMES) - In November, it was beginning to look a lot like a pre-pandemic Christmas in London.

Oxford Street, adorned in twinkling festive lights, bustled with tourists and local residents meandering in and out of stores buying gifts.

Audiences packed into West End theatres for sold-out shows (masks were not required), and pubs and restaurants were filled with jolly patrons attending quiz nights and holiday parties.

Then came the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which British Prime Minister Boris Johnson described as a "tidal wave" causing infections in the country to double every two to three days.

It has brought the government's current daily estimate of new cases to around 200,000 from a low of around 2,200 in May.

The impact on the hospitality industry was almost immediate, with restaurants reporting high volumes of cancellations, theatres cancelling shows and holiday office parties being rescheduled.

For international travellers, the new rash of cases has sparked concern and confusion, made worse by conflicting messages from the British government.

On Dec 12, the country raised the coronavirus alert level to 4 out of 5, indicating a high or rising level of transmission.

"People should be prioritising those things, and only those things that really matter to them," Dr Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, said at a news conference on Wednesday. "Don't mix with people you don't have to."

But Mr Johnson didn't seem to have gotten the message.

"We're not cancelling events, we're not closing hospitality, we're not cancelling people's parties or their ability to mix," he said the same day.

Although many Americans have cancelled their bookings, others who have grown tired of pandemic restrictions are desperate for a change of scene or to reconnect with loved ones face a conundrum.

"Our trip to London is less than a week away, and we still haven't cancelled because we are dying to go. We need this for our mental health," said Ms Lynsey Potter, 62, a reflexologist from Chicago who spent her first Christmas apart from her daughter and grandson last year because of travel restrictions between the United Kingdom and United States, which have since been lifted.

Like many travellers experiencing pandemic fatigue, Ms Potter is more concerned about the prospect of Britain reintroducing travel restrictions than of the virus itself.

"I have good armour against the virus with my three vaccines," she said. "I'm not too worried about that, but I have no control over the travel rules, and I don't think I would survive a hotel quarantine. If I decide to bail on the trip, that's why."

Indeed, Mr Joan Roca, founder and CEO of Essentialist, an international member-only travel service, said that although the earlier waves of the pandemic were seen first and foremost as health crises, "now it's a restriction crisis which has a much different impact on business".

In late November, Britain reintroduced a requirement that international travellers test negative before their trip, and then take an additional PCR test within two days of arrival.

Visitors must self-isolate until they receive a negative result, causing some travellers to cancel because they found the rules too cumbersome.

And even as the government last week removed all the remaining countries from its red travel list, which required travellers to undergo a 10-day mandatory hotel quarantine at a cost of US$3,030 (S$4,144) per person, some travellers worry that countries could be reinstated on short notice with Omicron spreading around the world.

Ms Camilla Ferrera, a freelance media director from Westport, Connecticut, had planned to fly to London this Monday with her partner and two children to reunite with friends and family.

Instead, "I made the decision to cancel my trip yesterday because of the number of tests we would need to take (one before departure, one within two days of arrival, one within 24 hours of returning)," she wrote in an -email.

"And the increased risk of exposure to Covid, specifically Omicron, it didn't feel sensible even though we are all triple vaccinated."

People cross Oxford Street in central London on Dec 4, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

'Here we go again'

Britain's hospitality and tourism sectors had hoped for a boost over the traditionally popular holiday season.

Instead, flight bookings from the United States to the United Kingdom fell by 33 per cent in the two weeks after news of the Omicron variant broke, compared with the two weeks prior, according to Visit Britain, a national tourism agency.

The number of bookings made between Nov 29 and Dec 5 was down 63 per cent compared with the same week in 2019, it said.

"I feel a sense of dread, but also a sense of 'Here we go again,'" said Ms Charley Harrison, 33, owner of Totally Tailored, a sightseeing tour operator in London and Edinburgh.

With a business heavily reliant on American visitors, Ms Harrison has already had 15 cancellations in December alone, with three booked tours remaining before Christmas.

"I'm seriously thinking about whether there is a future I can really rely on in tourism," she said.

Mr Roca of Essentialist said about 20 per cent to 25 per cent of his company's travellers who had booked trips to London decided to cancel and reroute to other destinations.

Virtuoso, a large network of luxury travel advisers, is seeing a similar trend with its clients pivoting to destinations such as Italy, Mexico and Hawaii.

To make the testing process easier for international travellers and discourage them from cancelling their trips, major London hotels such as The Savoy and Brown's Hotel are providing concierge services for testing and other travel requirements.

Brown's will even have a nurse meet passengers at the airport and administer the coronavirus test there to reduce the waiting time for the results at the hotel.

"We are making it as effortless as possible," said Mr Franck Arnold, managing director and regional vice-president at The Savoy.

The Savoy organises tests for travellers in their hotel rooms, after check-in, and results, Mr Arnold said, come within a few hours.

"Life is open in London," he said. "Travellers just have to deal with the administrative mandates."

Ms Louise Liddle, an independent video producer from New York, stuck with her Christmas plans to fly to London last week to visit friends and go sightseeing over the strong objections of her family back home.

"I just had to get out. I don't think London is any riskier than New York," she said, although after a few close encounters with the virus in recent days, she is being more conservative with her itinerary.

"I had dinner with some friends, and then four people tested positive. Then I was going to go to a play, and it got cancelled because of a Covid outbreak. It does feel like it's kind of everywhere right now," she said.

"I've stopped going to indoor restaurants and big gatherings and am considering cancelling plans for Christmas."

Restaurants in London are experiencing significant cancellations, causing some to temporarily close.

Chef Tom Kerridge, who owns six restaurants in London, Manchester and Buckinghamshire, said he received 654 cancellations for one restaurant over a six-day period.

"That's only the beginning," he said. "It will only get worse now that new announcements have been made. It's not only a reflection of one of our spaces but a reflection of the hospitality industry as a whole."

Despite the current downturn, there is still hope within the industry for the year ahead.

"We know there is significant pent-up demand to travel internationally, and for us, it's a big year next year," said Mr Paul Gauger, senior vice-president of the Americas at Visit Britain, pointing to big events such as the Queen's platinum Jubilee.

When Visit Britain surveyed American travellers in October - before the emergence of Omicron - to assess their feelings about travel, it found that 80 per cent of Americans surveyed were considering taking an international trip in the next 12 months and 58 per cent said they definitely would.

"These intentions were higher than what was recorded in the first and second waves of research, demonstrating a continuous growth in intention to travel," Mr Gauger said.

Ms Potter, the Chicago traveller who is debating cancelling, is one of those who says she will definitely get to London at some point.

"If I don't make my trip next week, I'll go at least twice next year," she said.

"There's no place like London, especially at Christmas. There's so much lost time to make up for."

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