Beleaguered pubs and restaurants are reporting early signs of a recovery in trade, fuelling hope that pent-up demand from a dismal Christmas for the sector is about to be unleashed.
Hospitality bosses told the Guardian that takings have picked up pace lately and that the easing of Plan B Covid restrictions – including the dropping of work-from-home guidance – could further bolster the recovery.
As research revealed that the UK lost more than 8,000 licensed premises in 2021 – the equivalent of 13 a day – pub bosses warned the industry was not out of the woods yet and called on the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to extend support for the sector.
Early signs of recovery included a stock market update from Revolution Bars, which has 67 venues. It said many of the office parties that were cancelled in December due to concerns about Omicron had been rebooked for early 2022.
The number of pub-goers is on the rise, according to Chris Jowsey, the chief executive of 1000-strong Admiral Taverns chain, although he called for further Treasury support to help take advantage of higher footfall.
“There is some pent-up demand because so much of Christmas was cancelled,” he said. “Even last week, we saw signs of people starting to go back to the local, and our trading over last weekend was decent.”
However, he called on Sunak to extend the lower, temporary 12.5% rate of VAT for hospitality businesses, and bring forward budget plans to reduce duty on draught beer, scheduled for 2023.
Restrictions on socialising forced pubs, restaurants and hotels to close, or drastically reduce capacity, during large parts of 2020 and 2021.
Figures from the industry analysts AlixPartners, released on Thursday, showed a net loss of 8,228 hospitality venues, a 7% decline, during 2021.
The group echoed calls for further government support, saying any recovery could be choked off by “rapidly rising food and energy costs, staff shortages and supply problems”.
While the recovery remains fragile, the figures showed an apparent rebound in the final quarter of 2021, with a 1.6% increase in the total number of licensed premises between October and December, by 1,672 to 106,880.
The rise was partly led by nightclubs, with numbers increasing by 3.1%, as they enjoyed the first sustained period of being allowed to open.
Growth in city centre venues was particularly strong, with the number of Edinburgh premises up 3.3%, Leeds up 3.9% and Liverpool leading the way on 4.4%.
A survey by the CGA data consultancy suggested a third of people were planning to increase the frequency of their evenings out.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of the trade body UK Hospitality, said the sector was hoping for renewed momentum from the easing of restrictions, in particular the work-from-home guidance.
“Now that’s being lifted, that will accelerate those events and activities that are going on. Consumer demand is out there, there’s an appetite to get back out and if we can get through the next few months I’ve no doubt the industry can look forward to a successful recovery from Easter onwards.”