Labour have criticised chancellor Rishi Sunak after it emerged he is on a four-day trip to California while businesses in England struggle with the repercussions of the Omicron variant outbreak.
According to the Daily Mirror, Sunak is on an official visit to the US to meet industry leaders from the tech and investment sectors.
But with Plan B restrictions enforced in England and the highest number of COVID cases recorded since the start of the pandemic, many businesses are being hit by lower footfall and cancellations.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said Sunak should “get himself on a flight back and get a grip on the situation”.
Streeting told Times Radio: “We understand the chancellor is currently out of the country in California.
“So perhaps he might want to get himself on a flight back and get a grip on the situation because businesses need certainty and confidence now.”
Downing Street said Rishi Sunak’s visit to California was a “long-planned trip”.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman was asked why the Chancellor’s trip was not on the list of Government engagements for the week, and he said: “I don’t know, I’d have to refer to (the) Treasury on that for when it was finalised, but I believe my understanding is a long-planned, long-standing trip.”
A Treasury spokesperson said: “The Chancellor is in the US on a long-planned trip conducting government business.
“He is in constant contact with staff back home and will be speaking to UK hospitality businesses today to hear their concerns.”
Health minister Gillian Keegan insisted on Thursday morning that there were still measures in place to help businesses through the pandemic, and that the government was not planning any more restrictions before Christmas.
But Labour said more support was needed after England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty told the public on Wednesday to prioritise events that “really matter to them” over the festive period, in an effort to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.
Boris Johnson stopped short of matching England’s chief medical officer’s warning, instead urging people to “think carefully” before attending celebrations.
Watch: Labour: Public act on advice despite 'shattered' trust in PM
The news has drawn concern from the hospitality sector as people weigh up whether to risk nights out or cancel to improve the chances of spending Christmas with family.
Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge has highlighted the suffering in the sector when he revealed one of his restaurants has seen more than 650 cancellations in the past six days due to Omicron fears.
He told Sky News this morning: “This is another example of mixed messaging and confusion…
“You have to question as to why you have a point where Chris Whitty is saying one thing and the government don’t appear to be backing that up and saying the same thing.
“Is that because there isn’t a support package there, or if there is, it’s time for Rishi Sunak – wherever he’s gone – to be able to say something to us and let us know what’s going on.”
British Chambers of Commerce president Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith said on Wednesday that Whitty’s plea “will almost certainly have an enormous impact for businesses”.
“Despite this still we heard no news of any new financial support measures coming from government to help those businesses, and others badly affected by the current restrictions,” she said.
And the head of a company with 320 pubs and hotels said on Thursday that his business was now in a “zombie world”.
Jonathan Neame, chief executive of Shepherd Neame, told Times Radio: “Go to pubs. Don’t go to pubs.
“It was the message last time which is a really confusing and difficult message.”
Health minister Gillian Keegan admitted on LBC that the situation was “terrible” for hospitality after having also suffered last Christmas.
But she insisted there was still support in place for businesses.
She told Sky News: “So we’ve still got VAT reductions, we’ve still got business rate cuts of 66%, and we’ve still got recovery loans in place.”
Treasury sources told the Daily Mirror that the chancellor would be calling some UK hospitality businesses today to hear their concerns, while his spokesperson said the California visit was a “work trip where he is conducting government business”.
Watch: PM: Wave of Omicron continues to roll in across the whole of the UK