England making the most of Covid rules easing, ONS figures show

People across England are rushing to make the most of coronavirus restrictions easing this week, with newly published official figures showing a surge in restaurant reservations and road traffic.

As pubs, cafes and restaurants in England reopened for outdoor dining and drinking on Monday, many people had booked in advance, so as not miss out on the chance to see friends and family over a meal again – despite the cold temperatures and snowy weather in parts of the country.

Reservations for a meal out on Monday jumped to 79% of the level recorded on the equivalent Monday in 2019, a year before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the Office for National Statistics said, using figures from OpenTable.

This is the first time seated diner reservations have exceeded 2% of 2019’s level since the latest lockdown was announced in January. In London and Manchester, bookings jumped to 47% and 153% of 2019 levels, respectively.

Venues were only allowed to serve people outdoors, limiting the number of possible bookings. Under the government’s four-step plan out of lockdown, all hospitality venues should be able to reopen indoors from 17 May.

Separate industry data published earlier this week showed that pubs and restaurants in England that opened on Monday sold more than twice as many drinks as they did on the same day in 2019, and one pub boss said it was similar to Christmas trading.

As non-essential shops, hairdressers, gyms, theme parks, zoos and campsites also opened again from Monday, many more people hit the road. The number of cars on the streets on Monday was at 91% of the level since in the first week of February 2020, the highest level since November, according to figures from the Department for Transport.

Hospitality firms and retailers have been taking on more staff before reopening, pushing online job vacancies to their highest level in more than a year.

UK online job adverts on 9 April were the highest since early March 2020, and equalled the average level recorded in February last year, the ONS said, using data from the online job search engine Adzuna. This was partly driven by a notable increase in the catering and hospitality category, which also reached its highest level since March 2020.

London’s financial services firms also started hiring again in the first three months of the year, with 70% more jobs available than in the previous quarter, and 50% more than in March 2020, according to recruitment firm Morgan McKinley.

Hakan Enver, Morgan McKinley’s UK managing director, said: “Financial services has had a strong start to 2021. As the vaccine rollout continues apace and the road out of lockdown clears, we are seeing the sector recover at a faster rate than anticipated. We expect this recovery and confidence to continue as the country unlocks and normal working life resumes.”

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The housing market also remains buoyant. The Bank of England’s latest credit conditions survey showed that lenders were preparing to offer more loans and high loan-to-value mortgages to consumers, and to reduce mortgage rates over the next three months, which analysts said should ensure that buyer demand remained strong.

However, the Bank of England survey also showed an increase in the number of small businesses defaulting on loans over the past three months. This figure is expected to go up further in the second quarter of 2021, with loan defaults among medium-sized firms also set to rise. Insolvencies have stayed low, but this is just the lull before the storm, said the accountancy firm Azets.

Duncan Swift, restructuring and insolvency partner at Azets, said: “Clearly government support measures such as loans and suspension of creditor rights to enforce payment by debtor companies have helped many companies ride out the economic storm caused by the pandemic. This cannot go on forever. In past economic recessionary shocks, the greatest number of corporate failures happen immediately after; rather than before or during.”


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