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Half-term breaks and hotel bookings slump as restrictions bite | Travel

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Jules Cuthbert is getting used to cancelling holidays. The 41-year old mother of two from Bristol abandoned plans for an October half term trip to Merthyr Tydfil when the south Wales town went into lockdown on 22 September. It was the fifth UK holiday she has had to postpone since the start of the pandemic and it may not be the last. As coronavirus cases continue to rise, Cuthbert is unsure whether to go ahead with her half-term plan B – a few days in the South Downs. “I’m now rethinking whether we should travel at all because we live in a highly populous area with a large student population. I’m a hospital pharmacist so I am very mindful of the potential risks of moving from an area with a high number of cases to one with less.”

Cuthbert’s experience is far from unusual. While many British holidaymakers managed to escape to the countryside during July and August, recent measures to contain the spread of the virus have thrown autumn and winter holidays plans into disarray and dashed any hopes that the half term holiday might help tourism businesses recoup some of the losses suffered during the first lockdown.

Local lockdowns, the rule of six and the 10pm curfew for restaurants and bars had already led to thousands of holiday cancellations and severely dented travellers’ confidence. Consumer research conduced by VisitBritain between 28 September and 2 October showed that just 10% of people were planning an overnight trip this month, with the majority (51%) blaming government travel restrictions for not feeling confident enough to travel, and 48% citing concerns about catching Covid. With more of the country now under high alert (tier 2) or very high alert (tier 3) tourism bosses say the situation can only worsen.

Merthyr Tydfil



Merthyr Tydfil has seen holidays cancelled following a local lockdown. Photograph: Matthew Horwood

“It’s death by a thousands cuts,” said Rob Paterson, chief executive of Best Western, a group of 300 independently-owned hotels across the UK. “The most recent data shows that bookings for its hotels in northern England and Scotland are down by almost 70% compared with the same time last year. In London there has been a 65% year on year fall. The only part of the UK where bookings were strong was the south west where there have been no local lockdowns, but now hotels in the region are also seeing a year-on-year slump in business. Losing half-term bookings on top of a dire outlook for Christmas will be the last straw for some of the group’s hotels, said Paterson. “As soon as the new tier system was announced we saw a new booking behaviour. We are going to see more cancellations. Many hotel owners will now close until in March.”

Fran Downtown, chief executive of Tourism Southeast said the ever-changing restrictions are a massive blow for accommodation providers, attractions and hospitality businesses.

“Nervousness has ramped up notably – we’ve seen a significant downturn in footfall across the region in the last two weeks,” she said.

Attractions remain open but falling visitor numbers, on top of already reduced capacity, has led many to scale back plans for events usually laid on over half term. In a recent poll by Welcome to Yorkshire, the region’s tourist board, a third of tourism businesses said they were cancelling activities for half term. “Business owners need certainty in order to invest [in events and activities]. If we continue with this stop-start in perpetuity, some businesses will just decide to fold,” said chief executive James Mason.

VisitBritain is predicting a 49% decline in domestic tourism spend in 2020, equating to a £44.9 billion loss to the economy. Thousands of people working in travel and tourism in the UK have already lost their jobs, with many more to come. The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions which represents some of the most popular institutions in the UK, from the National Trust to the Tate, reports that almost all of its 70 members are currently in redundancy consultations with staff. A report published by Globaldata last week summed up the grim outlook. “The upcoming months look bleak for the UK tourism industry and with the national infection rate continuing to surge, it appears there is no sign of let-up in the near future.”


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Cold comfort: UK outdoor swimming venues stay open to meet demand | Business

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The nights are drawing in; it is chilly and damp. But these are ideal conditions, it seems, for the country’s newly converted army of outdoor swimming fans.

In the summer, the pandemic closed indoor swimming pools across the UK – about one in five have yet to reopen – and thousands of swimmers started taking regular dips in open-air pools, lakes and rivers as an alternative.

At one point, demand was so high that the Outdoor Swimming Society was forced to take down its map of wild swimming spots in an attempt to prevent overcrowding.

But colder weather, more challenging water temperatures and the discomfort of wriggling into dry clothing in public is failing to deter many of the converts.

The National Open Water Coaching Association (Nowca), which operates bookings for 30 open-water venues in England and Scotland, from Manley Mere in Cheshire and Portobello Beach in Edinburgh to London Royal Docks, said the number of swimmers in October was up fourfold or 323% year on year, after a 60% rise in swimmers over the summer.

Better, which manages leisure services for local councils around the country, said it was keeping its West Reservoir venue in east London open for swimming into the winter for the first time this year because of the high demand.

The number of swimmers attending West Reservoir has soared from 1,600 in 2019 to 19,000 this year, making it busier than some of the heated pools on Better’s roster.

Visits to the group’s outdoor lidos are also up despite limitations on visitor numbers to facilitate social distancing.

At the popular London Fields heated lido in north London, numbers were up nearly 25% between August and October as swimmers have kept ploughing up and down the lanes in the cooler weather.

Andrew Clark, at Better’s parent company GLL, said people were desperate to get their swimming costumes back on once lockdown ended because “it is not an activity you can re-create with a virtual class like Jo Wicks. The prolonged closure of indoor pools forced people to try outdoor swimming. That’s created people who have said, ‘This is me now’ [and they have carried on into the autumn].”

He said the obvious health benefits had combined with a trend in exercise for “more experiences and something to brag about” by swimming outdoors in the cold.

Swim England says the health benefits include better sleep, circulation and increased happiness. A report published last week suggested that outdoor swimming could even delay dementia.

South London swimming club (SLSC), which manages winter swimming at the unheated Tooting Bec Lido, said more than 330 additional members had signed up this year, with double the number of people swimming daily in October compared with last year – despite the pool temperature now dropping to about 11C (52F).

Margy Sullivan, SLSC’s membership secretary, said more under 45-year-olds had signed up than usual: “It’s a much younger demographic. Outdoor swimming became the thing in the summer when pools were closed and a lot of people took to the sea and rivers and lakes. People discovered they could swim outside.”

She said the switch to working from home had made it easier for locals to pop in for a morning or lunchtime swim, while the younger generation had committed to the sport by buying the latest kit, such as changing robes and gloves.

The surge in outdoor swimming has been a boon for kit suppliers. Sales of swimsuits are down because of the closure of indoor pools, but cold water gear is thriving.

Frostfire, which makes the Moonwrap waterproof changing robe, said sales were nearly three times those of last year and its factory has been working at maximum capacity as demand continues into the autumn.

The online sports retailer Wiggle said demand for wetsuits was up by 80%, and sales of accessories such as neoprene socks, caps, and gloves – vital for many open-water swimmers to keep fingers and toes warm – are up by more than 150%.

However, not all outdoor swimmers are looking to chill out. At Hathersage pool in the Peak District, where the water is heated to 28C in October, the number of swimmers taking a dip this month is nearly three times that of last year, and there has been a surge of almost 90% since July, despite social distancing limitations.

George Foy, the pool’s assistant manager, said: “People want to be outdoors. In this Covid situation, all the advice points to being outdoors as much as possible, and once people have been here, they see how they can swim into October.”


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You don’t need a search engine to see why Google won’t lose this lawsuit | John Naughton | Opinion

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So, in the dying days of Trump’s first term, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) has finally taken Google to court. Attorney general William Barr, in conjunction with the AGs of 11 states, has filed a 58-page complaint under the Sherman Act “to restrain Google LLC (Google) from unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising and general search text advertising in the United States through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices, and to remedy the effects of this conduct”.

Google’s initial response was predictable: a blog post headed “A deeply flawed lawsuit that would do nothing to help consumers”. The DoJ’s lawsuit, apparently, “is deeply flawed. People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives.” There then follow useful animated gifs showing how easy it is to change your preferred search engine on your phone etc. But of course there’s no mention of the anticompetitive behaviour cited in the government’s suit.

So far, so predictable. But this sudden outbreak of regulatory zeal in the DoJ raises two questions. The first is: what took it so long? The second is: why now? Of these, the second is easiest to answer. There’s an election coming and Bill Barr wants to be seen as fulfilling his boss’s threat to “do something” about the tech companies that, Trump believes, have recently turned against him by suddenly refusing their traditional role as relay stations and amplifiers for his lies.

The first question – about why it took so long for US authorities to complain about corporate behaviour that had been obvious for years and, indeed, had provoked responses from the European commission – is interesting. There are at least three explanations for the regulatory somnolence of several US administrations (including that of the sainted Obama).

The first is what one can only call legislative dazzlement. For well over a decade, lawmakers everywhere were hypnotised by Silicon Valley. Prime ministers and presidents alike craved an invitation to the campuses of the tech giants, where they could bask in the reflected glory of a new generation of teenage billionaires. And this translated into a lot of backroom influence for the companies. One thinks, for example, of the way Google’s former chairman Eric Schmidt became a fixture in the inner councils of the Obama administration and the Democratic party. And of the servility with which municipalities abased themselves in the hope that Amazon would deign to land a warehouse or even an office in their neighbourhoods.

A second reason is ideological. With their contempt for regulation, their views on state incapacity and their aversion to paying taxes, the tech companies were cheerleaders for neoliberalist ideas about unshackling corporations, especially when they did stuff that dazzled politicians and the media – and provided “free” services that voters loved and valued.

And then there was the shift in judicial thinking about antitrust triggered in the late 1970s by the prominent legal thinker Robert Bork and promulgated by the economics and law faculties of the University of Chicago. The essence of this new philosophy was that the size and dominance of corporations were only a problem if they resulted in consumer harm, inevitably measured by prices. And if the products were “free” (Google, Facebook and Twitter, say), where was the consumer harm?

These three factors shaped the unregulated environment in which the tech giants flourished. So the big question now is whether that era is coming to an end. Europeans have been thinking that for a while (though the news has yet to reach the Republic of Ireland, which is still in thrall to digital monopolies). The US was slower off the mark and the first, farcical congressional hearings last year did not bode well. But then a few weeks ago we had the majority report of a subcommittee of the House of Representatives after it had conducted a major investigation of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, which concluded that they were all, in their different ways, abusive monopolists. And now comes Tuesday’s legal action by the Department of Justice.

I’m no lawyer, but the chances of the Justice Department winning this one seem slim because it is focusing on the wrong targets – search dominance and special deals with Apple and other companies that supposedly hobble competition. It’s as if nobody in Washington read the papers of the European commission’s actions against Google in 2010 over its suppression of independent shopping comparison sites in favour of its own. (In 2017 the company was found guilty and fined $2.7bn.) This was, as the veteran observer of the tech industry Charles Arthur observed on Wednesday, “the right move and concerned with the correct topic: that Google was manipulating search to favour its own products over what consumers evidently wanted. Effectively, that’s annexation: using your power in the market to push others out of an adjacent market.”

A cynical observer may conclude that the attorney general isn’t really interested in winning this case. And that would be an astute assessment: the lawsuit is a token gesture to keep the boss off his back. And, besides, Barr will be on gardening leave after 20 January so he won’t give a damn.

What I’ve been reading

Does no one get Covid?
It Wasn’t Just Trump Who Got it Wrong is a bracing piece by Zeynep Tufekci on how the reality-based, science-friendly information sources many of us depend on largely failed to understand the pandemic.

Biden – his time?
Joe Biden Has Changed is an intriguing essay by Franklin Foer in the Atlantic on how Trump’s opponent has been altered by the campaign.

Seeing is believing
How to write a reference for a student in the age of Zoom. Or perhaps not. Lovely piece by Matt Cheung in McSweeney’s.


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Why working from home was the death knell for Quibi | TV streaming

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The short-form streaming platform Quibi, which offered quick shows designed for watching on phones, on the go, has crashed and burned just six months after its launch. Its founder, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and CEO, Meg Whitman, released an open letter to employees and investors – and it had a huge amount of investment, to the tune of $1.75bn (£1.34bn) – explaining that the idea had not worked, offering “a profound apology for disappointing you and, ultimately, for letting you down”.

Quibi – it stood for “quick bites” – had faced an uphill battle from its launch in March. It produced an awful lot of shows, each five to 10 minutes, with an awful lot of serious, big-name, A-list talent either behind or at the front of it, such as Jennifer Lopez, Idris Elba, Steven Spielberg, Will Smith and Chrissy Teigen.

In July, reports estimated that the number of subscribers who paid after the free trial stood at 72,000; it sounds like more celebrities were involved than punters. It failed to produce a hit, though word of mouth on the always under-celebrated Nicole Richie comedy, Nikki Fre$h, which invented the musical genre “parent trap” and saw Richie rapping about gardening, suggests viewers were missing out.

Still, Quibi was clearly doomed by its launch year. It was both of its time and a victim of its time. Homespun short-form videos continued to boom and thrive, as TikTok became a reference point grandparents could recognise, but professional, slick, short-form series just didn’t have a place. The idea of “premium” mini-shows made sense, if they were aimed at people on the move, who wanted to catch up on something between train stations, perhaps, or on the bus home from work. It’s hard to know whether it would have taken off in a more normal world, but that normal world is increasingly unrecognisable.

In the 2020 that Quibi ended up launching into, the rise of working from home means that the transitional state it would have filled has disappeared for many. Going to work might mean getting dressed and walking into another room, if that; I still remember the US judge who reprimanded two lawyers, one for attending a virtual hearing with no top on, the other while still in bed. For people who can and do work from home, and surely this winter will only bring more of it, we are at work, or not at work, without the in-between time that would have been perfect for watching five minutes of Nicole Richie dressed as a bee.

Keep calm and carry on with the quizzes

Donald Fear and Jeremy Clarkson
Millionaire winner Donald Fear and Jeremy Clarkson: keep your distance. Photograph: Stellify Media/PA

In September, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? crowned its first top-prize winner in years, as former teacher Donald Fear walked away with the £1m jackpot. The series was memorable for that, but also because, owing to Covid-19 restrictions, the contestants and the host, Jeremy Clarkson, could not touch. Each time someone left, either with their prize money or despondent and empty-handed, they stood up and paused, unsure of how to say goodbye without shaking Clarkson’s hand. It was indelibly awkward.

Last week, the Sun online reported that Ofcom had 23 complaints about a recent celebrity edition of The Chase. Complaining to Ofcom seems to have become a way of expressing mild disgruntlement about absolutely everything, but in this case people were miffed that the host, Bradley Walsh, shook the contestants’ hands and that the contestants, having just won £120,000 for charity, hugged in celebration. The Chase responded that protocol had been followed, contestants had been tested and there was nothing to see here.

Quiz shows will stand as the oddest monuments to television in 2020, more so than hastily knocked-out Zoom dramas and endless clip shows. They have ploughed ahead with enough Keep Calm and Carry On spirit to adorn countless mugs. Only Connect has separated its quizzers with Perspex screens. University Challenge reached its first pandemic episodes on Monday, again using screens, which made the conferring part much louder than usual. I realise that isn’t much to grumble about, but I might see what Ofcom has to say about it anyway.

Jennifer Lawrence’s repentance speaks volumes

Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence: now firmly in the Biden camp.
Photograph: Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

On the most recent episode of the podcast Absolutely Not, Jennifer Lawrence discussed her political views with the host, Heather McMahan.

McMahan had asked her about the anti-corruption organisation RepresentUs, as Lawrence sits on the board. The discussion turned, inevitably, to the US presidential election. “It’s extremely hard to talk about politics,” Lawrence said. “And you don’t want to. I’m an actor, I want everybody to see my movies.” She went on to say that she had grown up in a Republican family in Kentucky and when she voted for the first time, she voted for John McCain. But with Donald Trump, she said, “it feels like there’s been a line drawn in the sand… It just changes things for me”. She endorsed Joe Biden and Kamala Harris earlier this month.

The gist of the online reaction appears to be “why would she admit to that?”, but, really, why would she not? There is more power in a former Republican voter explaining why they oppose Trump than another lifelong, liberal, A-lister preaching to the choir. Robert De Niro saying “fuck Trump” to an audience at a theatre awards ceremony is entertaining, I suppose, but surely Lawrence is more likely to change the minds that need changing.

• Rebecca Nicholson is an Observer columnist


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