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In light of the Omicron variant, should Christmas parties be banned?

Whether at home, with friends or with your colleagues, Christmas parties are a yearly tradition that many of us look forward to. But with cases of covid-19 creeping back up to alarming levels and the emergence of the Omicron variant, many are wondering whether Christmas parties should be banned this year.

Would banning Christmas parties reduce the amount of coronavirus cases?

According to the UK Government’s coronavirus dashboard, there were 300,554 people who tested positive for coronavirus in the last seven days from the 30th of November. This is an increase of 2,896 (1%) from the seven-day period before that.

In the week ending the 5th of November, there were also 995 covid-related deaths in England and Wales, the highest number since the week ending 12th March.

With coronavirus cases and covid-related deaths still rising, some will argue that banning Christmas parties could help to reduce these figures and the resulting strain on the NHS.

However, Raphael Herzog, the chair of the Bristol Hoteliers Association, believes the chances of Christmas parties contributing to a rise in COVID cases is no worse than at many of the other social activities that we can currently do.

Raphael Herzog, Bristol Hoteliers Association

Raphael Herzog

He commented: “Many events and social activities have returned; crowds back in sports stadiums, live music concerts happening, theatres open again. The chances of Christmas parties at hotels contributing to rising COVID cases is no higher than it is at any of these other social events or going grocery shopping, visiting the cinema or travelling on public transport.

“What people also need to remember is that, during the pandemic, many hotels invested considerable sums of money – despite having little, if any, income – in making their premises as COVID-safe as possible. We’ve said for some time that, with all the measures we’ve invested in, it has been safer coming to one of our hotels than to go shopping in a supermarket.

“When you think about gathering with family, friends and colleagues, as many do at Christmas, surely it’s much safer to manage people’s social lives in environments which have seen significant investment in being made as clean as possible, than to have parties in houses, flats and other places which have not had the kind of measures taken that hotels have.

“The welfare of everyone who visits and stays in our hotels is our top priority, and we have all taken considerable steps to provide as safe an environment as possible. And again, individuals can also play their part, too, to further mitigate against any risks. Wear masks, if it makes you feel safer, wash your hands regularly, use sanitiser often, and there is no reason to fear a specific rise in COVID rates purely through Christmas parties or gatherings.”

Although there appears to be a good argument to say banning Christmas parties might not pose the biggest risk of transmitting coronavirus this year, many will feel that any socialising in large groups is too risky considering the rise in cases and especially with the emergence of the Omicron variant.

For example, when speaking about the Omicron variant on Monday, the Chief Executive of the UK’s Health Security Agency (UKHSA), Jenny Harries, said: “If we all decrease our social contacts a little bit, actually that helps to keep the variant at bay.” Harries also said we can do our bit by “not socialising when we don’t particularly need to”.

Her comments alarmed several Tory MPs who later commented on her remarks in the commons, and even prompted Prime Minister Boris Johnson to respond and urge people not to cancel Christmas parties or school nativity plays this year.

What impact would banning Christmas parties have on the hospitality industry?

It’s been very well documented that the hospitality sector was one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, with pubs, restaurants and hotels all forced to close to prevent transmission of the virus. So, if Christmas parties were to be banned, this raises important questions about the sector could withstand another big financial blow.

Raphael continues: “If we were instructed to cancel all Christmas events, it would ultimately just be the very latest in a long list of challenges our sector has faced over the past two years.

“These events do usually provide us with a valuable source of income over the festive period, but we came through last year without being able to hold Christmas parties, so I am sure we could cope with another quiet Christmas. Of course, we would rather not do and much prefer to be able to host festive events as we continue the long road towards business recovery.

To give a rough estimate of how much banning Christmas parties could cost the sector, we’ve looked at figures from previous years.

According to the Christmas Party Index 2015 by Eventbrite, which was based on a survey of 500 business decision makers in the UK, organisations were set to spend £955 million on entertaining staff in 2015, with almost three-quarters throwing a party and spending more than £40 per head on average.

Whilst this figure is only a rough estimate of how much Christmas parties could be worth to the UK economy in 2021, due to different rates of inflation, the ongoing pandemic and a variety of other factors, if we were to also include the amount private Christmas parties contribute to the UK economy, the potential hit to the UK economy could be very hard to take.

However, Raphael points out that there haven’t been too many Christmas bookings at the moment. So, if Christmas parties were banned by the UK Government, would the financial consequences even be that dire in the current climate?

“Bookings for the Christmas period are quite slow at the moment,” says Raphael. “It seems that people are happy to have get togethers and a Christmas meal, but companies are still very slow to make enquiries or bookings about Christmas parties for their teams, and we’ve heard of some who have put bans on Christmas parties.

“It could be that they are worried about being viewed negatively if they are seen to be actively encouraging large gatherings at a time when COVID cases are still high.”

Whilst bookings are proving slow for Raphael at the moment, there are business leaders out there who are planning to hold a Christmas party this year. Matt Gubba, CEO and founder of Biz Britain is one of them.

He comments: “After the second year of misery inflicted on businesses across the nation, many will be looking forward to the welcome reprieve provided by the annual Christmas party. I couldn’t think of anything less wanted at this point than a misguided attempt by the government to ruin yet another Christmas in the name of covid fanaticism.

“At what point does it stop? I, for one, don’t want to live in a Cromwellian nightmare of a world where Christmas is banned forever in the name of protecting the NHS. We will be holding our Christmas party come what may, and I hope other businesses will follow suit.”

Whether you agree that Christmas parties should be banned or not, if they are to go ahead, it will be interesting to see whether they will be cited as a cause for a rise in cases of covid-19, especially after last year’s tiered system meant a huge percentage of Christmas get togethers were unable to go ahead.

Are you or your company planning to host a Christmas party this year? If so, we want to hear from you! Send an email to editor@businessleader.co.uk and let us know your plans.

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