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Warily eyeing omicron, Christmas revelers curb celebrations

(People queue up to travel on trains at London St Pancras International rail station, in London, the Eurostar hub to travel to European countries including France, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. After the U.K. recorded its highest number of confirmed new COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began, France announced Thursday that it would tighten entry rules for those coming from Britain. Hours later, the country set another record, with a further 88,376 confirmed COVID-19 cases reported Thursday, almost 10,000 more than the day before. AP Photo: Matt Dunham)

BY KELVIN CHAN and DANICA KIRKA, LONDON (AP):- Christmas revelers across Europe are lying low and changing plans as new restrictions and fears about the omicron variant of the coronavirus persuade many to stay home, magnifying concerns about a second lost holiday season for airlines, restaurants and shops already battered by the pandemic.

Scotland and Wales on Friday pledged millions of pounds for businesses hurt in Britain’s latest surge, heaping pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to do the same in England. Treasury chief Rishi Sunak is holding talks with business representatives who have demanded more support, decrying a “lockdown by stealth” in which government officials recommend people stay home as much as possible without officially imposing the strict rules of past shutdowns.

Several European countries are warily watching the spread of omicron. On Friday, the Danish government proposed closing theaters, concert halls, amusement parks and museums in response to a rise in virus cases that experts said was faster than expected.

But nowhere is the increase more dramatic than in Britain, which reported record numbers of infections, partially driven by the new variant, twice this week.

Businesses ranging from vacation providers to pubs and theaters are reporting a wave of booking cancellations as customers err on the side of caution rather than risk being infected and missing holiday celebrations with friends and families. Experts say omicron appears more contagious, but little else is known — and the uncertainty itself is enough to cause many to change their plans.

Even Britain’s Christmas pantos — beloved holiday performances where audiences take part in raucous evenings by shouting warnings to the cast — are under threat. The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, western England, has had to refund 180,000 pounds ($240,000) in ticket sales after customers decided not to go to shows. It was also forced to cancel 12 performances of “Beauty and the Beast” because half the cast tested positive.

“There’s been a real dent of confidence,” Executive Director Joanna Reid told the BBC.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said Friday that financial assistance for business must come from the central government because it has the borrowing power to finance the scale of aid that is needed.

“Business is already bleeding, every 24 hours counts,” Sturgeon said during a briefing in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. “There is no time to waste.”

The already beleaguered travel and tourism industry is being particularly hammered, as restrictions to curb the spread of omicron are adding to the gloom during the crucial holiday season.

Eurostar, which operates trains across the English Channel, sold out of tickets to France on Friday before new rules on travel to and from Britain went into effect. Long lines snaked around the parking lot at the Eurotunnel, which runs the tunnel that drivers use to cross the water.

Amanda Wheelock, 29, a grad student at the University of Michigan, canceled a trip to France with her partner as cases spiked there. Even though the surge isn’t necessarily due to omicron, the uncertainty about the new variant, and a new requirement that all U.S. travelers have to test negative before flying back to the U.S., made her worry that the trip would be more stressful than fun.

Instead, she’s traveling to the Anchorage, Alaska, area to see friends. She feared that she would spend much of her trip trying to avoid getting infected — thus not able to take full advantage of being in France.

“A vacation with a lot of stress probably not a great vacation,” said Wheelock, who is from Arvada, Colorado.

She is not alone. The Advantage Travel Group, which represents about 350 U.K. travel agents, said business had fallen by 40% in mid-December from a month earlier. Those numbers, including flights, cruise bookings and package holidays, add to the travel industry’s existing slump, which had already seen business fall by two-thirds since the pandemic began, CEO Julia Lo Bue-Said.

“Our members are dealing with customers who are really nervous about traveling now,” she said “They’re really nervous about bookings for the New Year because they fear that there’s a risk that the government will make more knee-jerk reactions.”

Amid Britain’s dramatic surge, Sunak met with representatives of the hospitality sector on Thursday to hear their concerns about how they would make it through another season with slashed revenue.

Travel trade association Abta argued it deserved the same attention from the government. It demanded an “urgent meeting” with Sunak and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to discuss the sector’s “current financial situation and its pressing need for financial support.”

“The government has recognized the plight of the U.K. hospitality sector, with trade down by 40% in December,” chief executive Mark Tanzer said. “But at the same time, the travel industry, where income has been down by 78% this year, and further impacted by omicron restrictions since late November, continues to be ignored.”

Associated Press writer Mae Anderson in New York contributed to this report.

For Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-ve) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point

For Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-ve) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point

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