Calls for chancellor to cut short California trip and agree Omicron business support

Treasury says long-planned visit is work not leisure

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Thursday 16 December 2021 15:21
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<p>Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (Aaron Chown/PA)</p>

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (Aaron Chown/PA)

Rishi Sunak was today facing calls to cut short a visit to California to address pleas for support from the UK’s hospitality industry, hit by a wave of cancelled bookings and stay-away customers in the wake of new warnings to exercise caution over Omicron in the run-up to Christmas.

Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds wrote to Mr Sunak and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng calling for urgent action to support businesses facing “closure by stealth”.

And Liberal Democrats called for the House of Commons’ Christmas break to be delayed by a day to Friday to allow for the agreement of a package of measures to keep pubs, cafes and restaurants alive.

Downing Street said that the chancellor had been in constant contact with London during his trip and had been keeping up to date with the fast-moving outbreak of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

And Treasury sources rejected suggestions that he had been enjoying a holiday between meetings in San Francisco, noting that he was accompanied by officials rather than his wife or other family members and did not stay at his holiday home in Santa Monica.

No precise details were made available of the chancellor’s schedule during his four-day visit, but a Treasury spokesperson said: “The chancellor is on a long-planned official trip conducting govt business. He is in San Francisco meeting industry leaders from the tech and investment sector to discuss the global economy and the recovery.”

He was this afternoon due to conduct a virtual meeting with representatives of the hospitality industry and is expected back in the UK on Friday.

Asking an urgent question in the House of Commons on support for business during the current Omicron wave, Labour’s Treasury spokesperson Pat McFadden asked: “Where is the chancellor?

“Why did he decide to proceed with a trip to California on Tuesday when it was already clear that UK businesses were struggling to cope with what the prime minister himself has called a ‘tidal wave’ of Omicron?

“Even if he is abroad, California is not exactly a communications desert. They have television there. I’ve heard they even have the internet.

“But still it’s radio silence from the chancellor. Tumbleweed rolling through the Treasury.

“The Treasury says he’s in communication with his officials, but what about some communication with businesses who are losing bookings by the hour and watching their December profits vanish into thin air?”

Lib Dem chief whip Wendy Alexander said: “The chancellor must get on the next plane back from his California jaunt to move heaven and earth to save a hospitality sector on the brink of collapse.”

And the SNP’s Treasury spokesperson Alison Thewliss said Mr Sunak’s absence was “nothing short of a dereliction of duty”.

“Rather than taking steps to strengthen support and fill the gaps in measures to help businesses and workers at this crucial time, the chancellor is instead literally out of office thousands of miles away,” said Ms Thewliss.

“The chancellor must step up and heed calls to bring forward financial support to ensure businesses are not pushed over the brink and workers are not out of their jobs this Christmas.”

Meanwhile, the chair of the House of Commons Treasury Committee, Tory MP Mel Stride, wrote to Mr Sunak to demand details of any plans being drawn up to help businesses suffering from reductions in demand.

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