Three months into her new job, Megan McCracken has never met most of the members of her team. So the office Christmas party was a big deal.
â€œWeâ€™re spread out all over the country,â€ the 25-year-old, who lives in Sheffield, said. â€œIt would have been so good to have the chance to actually see them in person. When the party was announced, it was put out there as this chance to spend time together.â€ The plan was a training awayday followed by dinner, a party, and a night in a hotel. â€œIt was a big deal because weâ€™ve had such a terrible couple of years. It was light at the end of the tunnel.â€
Then Omicron happened. McCrackenâ€™s company, an occupational health firm with a keen sense of the importance of practising what it preaches, cancelled. At the same time as understanding the decision, McCracken says her own friends are still keen to see each other.
â€œI think a lot of people would feel uncomfortable about a big thing now, but everyone is still very much up for meeting up in smaller groups,â€ she said. â€œOtherwise itâ€™s like that light at the end of the tunnel has gone. And you have this feeling: are we in this for ever now?â€
Al, a 32-year-old advertising account manager in London, has also had her work Christmas do called off â€“ but she isnâ€™t particularly fussed. â€œI would say I actually like about one in three of my colleagues, Iâ€™m not that up for watching them get off with each other and vomit on themselves,â€ she said, hastily adding that she had probably better not use her last name.
â€œBut seeing your mates is a different thing. Going out is the best bit of Christmas, isnâ€™t it?â€ A university reunion, a pub crawl, and two karaoke evenings are the tentpole events of her schedule, and she reckons she will be out four nights a week until Christmas Eve.
â€œI do feel a bit guilty about all of it, but until Boris Johnson literally says â€˜do not leave your houseâ€™ Iâ€™m not going to cancel,â€ she said. â€œSod that.â€
In this, the season of pissed and mellow boozefulness, the heartsinking news of Omicron has led companies across the country to conclude that they have no choice but to call things off.
NatWest, Deloitte, Aviva, University College London, Bandai, Age UK, NHS Trusts and the BBC are among those to have gone beyond official guidance to cancel planned Christmas parties. A survey by the Covid-testing company Prenetics of 2,000 office workers concluded that about 52% of workplaces have decided not to hold the usual annual knees-up, and the online bookings platform Design My Night says that cancellations went up by 14% after the government announced masks would be compulsory in shops in England last week.
At the same time, though, party-starved veterans of last yearâ€™s grim December appear largely determined to press on, on their own terms. Itâ€™s a tale of two Christmases, and nobody is quite sure what the ending will be.
Simon Potts, managing director of The Alchemist â€“ a cocktail bar and restaurant group with 18 sites across England and Wales, said that his clientele â€“ 22- to 34-year-olds â€“ have been committed to going out since around July.
â€œWe know people have been sat on cash, and thereâ€™s plenty of supporting data to suggest young people particularly are keen to live in the moment,â€ he said. While there has been â€œa little flurry of spooked corporate bookings where a CEO somewhere has pulled the plug,â€ for his company, â€œIâ€™m not sure thereâ€™s a shortfall at all â€¦ office workers are still going out, just in different guises.â€
For hospitality businesses with more corporate bookings, though, the impact is making itself felt. Simon Wood, the MasterChef winner who runs two restaurants, Wood Manchester and WoodKraft Cheltenham, said that he is now â€œmilitantâ€ about deposits and, at Wood Manchester, late cancellation penalties to deal with the problem. Even so, a big corporate cancellation hurts. â€œI understand if a booking for six becomes a booking for four, we just have to roll with that,â€ Wood said. â€œBut we lost a 40-person breakfast booking in Cheltenham, because their office wonâ€™t let them socialise in a big group.â€â€œThe biggest issue is no-shows,â€ said Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association. He blamed â€œconfusedâ€ government messaging, which is hard to argue with: on the one hand, Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, suggesting people shouldnâ€™t socialise â€œwhen they donâ€™t particularly need toâ€ and the science minister George Freeman saying that his department wouldnâ€™t be holding a large event; on the other, Sajid Javid and Boris Johnson urging people to carry on as normal.
Reports of parties in Downing Street last December have done little to dampen a sense of confusion. And then there was ThÃ©rÃ¨se Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, who gave a highly specific warning against snogging strangers, only for Downing Street to reiterate that people could get off with whoever they like.
The official position is that the â€œnecessary and proportionateâ€ return to compulsory face masks in shops and on public transport, as well as enhanced measures for international travellers, are all that is necessary for now. â€œThe government doesnâ€™t seem to understand that any representation of doubt just has a market reaction,â€ Kill said. â€œNobody really knows what theyâ€™re supposed to do.â€
To many events businesses that rely on a big December peak to get them through the quiet new year months, the message appears to be one of caution without compensation. â€œIt needs to be what it needs to be,â€ said Ceri Steed, director (and, it should be noted, chief juggler) at Exitus Escape Rooms in Cardiff. â€œIf weâ€™re told that you have to close to protect the NHS, thatâ€™s fine. But at the moment it feels like theyâ€™re saying â€“ donâ€™t come, but also weâ€™re not going to support you.â€
Steed is dying to make full use of her purpose-designed Christmas Chaos room â€“ â€œthe elves had a bit too much mulled wine at the Christmas party,â€ the Exitus website says, resulting in the loss of various presents, and it is the participantsâ€™ job to get them back under the tree â€“ but has seen some cancellations from out-of-town visitors. â€œBut weâ€™re holding up with companies â€“ our advantage is that the room isnâ€™t shared with anyone outside of their group, so itâ€™s different to a restaurant or a pub.â€
In the face of so much uncertainty, even those who are determined to have a good time are also resigned to the prospect that they may soon not have a choice. â€œYou hear so many conflicting things about Omicron,â€ Al said. â€œWe were talking about it in the pub last night. And then I wondered if I should be there at all.â€ Did she leave? â€œI did,â€ she said. â€œBut only after another two pints.â€