The U.K. retail and hospitality sectors are under immense pressure this holiday season as an unprecedented arctic blast blew across the nation in early December, sending the temperature to minus six celsius on Monday morning, the coldest in 2022.
Heavy snowfall beginning on Sunday night caused great disruptions in the public transport system. Airport runways in Gatwick and Stansted were shut, trains were canceled and highways experienced continuous congestion.
In London, the Central, Piccadilly and Jubilee lines, which connect key retail locations such as Bond Street, Covent Garden, Oxford Circus and Knightsbridge with other parts of the town, reported severe delays on Monday. Other tubes also experienced minor delays, with the London Overground suspending part of its service.
The extreme weather is expected to subside by the end of the week, with temperature returning double digits, but the nation is facing a much bigger problem.
Millions will be impacted when the national rail, Eurostar, NHS, postal workers, bus drivers, border force and ambulance workers begin their planned strikes over pay raises from Tuesday throughout the rest of December.
The lack of efficient public transportation is set to dent London’s footfall, especially considering the city is one of the most popular destinations for international travelers to visit during the holiday season.
Dee Corsi, chief executive officer at the New West End Company, which represents some 600 retail, restaurant, hotel and property owners in central London’s core shopping areas anchored by Bond, Oxford and Regent Streets, said the weather and strikes may put an end to the consecutive footfall growth in the past five weeks in the West End. The area saw a 31 percent growth on last year’s figures.
“Hopes for a successful retail and hospitality holiday season are under threat from the upcoming rail strikes. We continue to urge all sides to come to an agreement to cancel the strikes so that high street businesses and their hard-working teams can enjoy the festive period, following years of hardship,” Corsi said.
Laura Citron, chief executive officer at London & Partners, the international trade, investment and promotion agency for the British capital, said she believes the snowfall will make London “more magical at this time of year,” despite the fact that unexpected weather conditions, such as the summer heatwave earlier this year, did have an impact on footfall.
In response to the strikes, the British government held an emergency Cobra meeting on Monday to finalize a contingency plan, which would see the deployment of military personnel to fill in those key vacancies in hospitals, border control, public transport and postal systems during the holiday season.
Britain’s foreign secretary James Cleverly said that funding inflation-level pay rises for the entire public sector would cost the taxpayer 28 billion pounds, equal to almost 1,000 pounds per household.
“Of course, we want to ensure that people are paid fairly, but what isn’t fair is for union bosses to put people’s livelihoods at risk in order to push their pay demands to the front of the queue,” he said.
Cleverly also confirmed that prime minister Rishi Sunak is working on measures to tighten strike laws, which could ban emergency service workers, including paramedics and firefighters, from taking strike action.