A sharp fall in demand for groceries, as pubs and restaurants reopened to indoor customers, has driven a decline in retail sales volumes.
The Office for National Statistics charted a surprise 1.4% fall in retail sales between April and May.
Economists had predicted growth of 1.6% on the back of a 9% surge the previous month following an easing of COVID-19 restrictions that released pent-up demand for goods on the high street.
The fall in grocery volumes was backed up by separate figures from Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, which noted a decline in sales for meals at home during April and May in its first quarter results statement.
The retailer, which like its rivals has been among those shielded from pandemic sales pain, still reported like-for-like UK sales growth of 0.5% over the period against the tough comparison of the same three months to May in 2020.
Commenting on the wider performance for the retail sector as a whole, ONS director of economic statistics, Darren Morgan, said: “
“Following a sharp increase last month coinciding with post-lockdown reopening, retail sales dipped slightly in May.
“However, they remain well above both their pre-pandemic levels and those seen in March before shops reopened.
“Food stores sales suffered as feedback suggested the reopening of hospitality meant consumers took advantage of eating out instead.
“Household goods stores and garden centres fared well as people spent money on improving their gardens in anticipation of the summer and the lifting of restrictions on outdoor gatherings.
“As customers returned to physical stores, online sales fell in May for the third consecutive month, but remain nearly 60% higher than the level seen in February 2020.”
In Tesco’s case, it reported revenue of £12.4bn – a rise of 1.3% on a like-for-like basis compared to the first quarter last year – and said it represented growth of 8.7% by the same measure on March-May 2019.
It reported a rising contribution from its Booker wholesale operation – thanks to hospitality reopening – and said a sales decline in Ireland reflected a strong comparison with a year ago as the country entered lockdown rather than any Brexit-related hit.
Chief executive Ken Murphy told investors: “Our profit guidance from April remains unchanged.
“While the market outlook remains uncertain, I’m pleased with the strong start we’ve made to the year and continue to be excited about the many opportunities we have to create value over the longer term.”
A note to clients by Jefferies Equity Research said of the performance: “Resilient UK industry grocery sales and notable improvements at Booker have helped Tesco enjoy two-year stacked sales growth accelerating from the already strong levels seen at the end of 20/21.
“Despite the lack of formal guidance upgrade in this sales update, the upbeat start to the year suggests that guide for 21/22 retail profits similar to 19/20 could be bettered as the year progresses.”
London-listed SPAC targets merger with chronic disease drug developer Istesso
The first “blank cheque” company to list in London after an overhaul aimed at helping the City compete with rival financial centres is in talks to merge with a privately owned drugs group developing treatments for chronic diseases.
Sky News has learnt that Hambro Perks Acquisition Company (HPAC) is in advanced negotiations about a deal, which could be announced within weeks.
If successfully completed, the merger would represent a milestone for the London stock market even as scores of so-called special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) – predominantly in New York – are being wound up following a slump in valuations.
City sources said on Saturday that HPAC had been in discussions with Istesso for some time.
A merger would value the company at several hundred million pounds, although a more precise valuation could not be ascertained this weekend.
Founded in 2017, Istesso focuses on an area of medicine called immunometabolism, and is developing treatments for severe diseases such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
Several of its products have reached Phase-II trials, with others at an earlier stage of development.
One biotech analyst who is familiar with Istesso’s work said the business appeared to have significant growth potential.
Istesso is majority-owned by IP Group, the London-listed company which focuses on commercialising intellectual property across sectors such as energy and healthcare.
Last week, IP Group named Anita Kidgell, head of corporate strategy at the FTSE-100 pharmaceuticals giant GSK, as a non-executive director.
The SPAC was the brainchild of Hambro Perks, a London-based venture capital firm which holds stakes in dozens of early-stage companies such as What3Words, the geolocation start-up, and Tide, the business bank.
It is chaired by Sir Anthony Salz, the former Rothschild banker and City lawyer.
Dominic Perks, Hambro Perks’ co-founder, said at the time of HPAC’S listing in November 2021 that he had decided to list the vehicle in London in the wake of rule changes which meant the City could compete more robustly with New York and Amsterdam.
The SPAC, which raised nearly £150m from its initial public offering, had 15 months to secure a deal, meaning it faces a deadline next month to announce the merger or seek an extension from shareholders.
Hambro Perks has substantial experience of healthcare investment, having backed start-ups including Aide, a digital health service which helps patients manage chronic conditions, Genomics, a genetics-based drugs group, and Akamis Bio, a clinical-stage oncology company.
The SPAC boom in the US triggered the arrival on the public markets of dozens of companies, including Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit,
A string of UK companies, including Babylon Health and Cazoo, the online car retailer, have merged with SPACs and subsequently seen their valuations plummet.
Rothschild is advising the Hambro Perks SPAC on the deal, while Istesso is being advised by Panmure Gordon.
HPAC and IP Group have both been contacted for comment.
Flybe customers urged not to go to airport as carrier collapses and cancels all flights
Passengers due to travel with Flybe have been told not to go to the airport after the regional carrier ceased trading and all flights were cancelled.
The airline has gone into administration less than a year after returning to the skies following a previous collapse.
Ticket-holders were advised to check the Civil Aviation Authority website for further information or if they had booked through an intermediary to contact the relevant agent.
Flybe operated scheduled services from Belfast, Birmingham and Heathrow to airports across the UK and to Amsterdam and Geneva.
In a statement posted on its Twitter account, the airline said: “We are sad to announce that Flybe has been placed into administration.
“David Pike and Mike Pink of Interpath have been appointed administrators.
“Regretfully, Flybe has now ceased trading.
“All Flybe flights from and to the UK are cancelled and will not be rescheduled.”
CAA consumer director Paul Smith said: “It is always sad to see an airline enter administration and we know that Flybe’s decision to stop trading will be distressing for all of its employees and customers.
“We urge passengers planning to fly with this airline not to go to the airport as all Flybe flights are cancelled.
“For the latest advice, Flybe customers should visit the Civil Aviation Authority’s website or our Twitter feed for more information.”
A government spokesman said: “This remains a challenging environment for airlines, both old and new, as they recover from the pandemic, and we understand the impact this will have on Flybe’s passengers and staff.
“Our immediate priority is to support people travelling home and employees who have lost their jobs,” a spokesperson said.
“The Civil Aviation Authority is providing advice to passengers to help them make their journeys as smoothly and affordably as possible.
“The majority of destinations served by Flybe are within the UK with alternative transport arrangements available.
“We recognise that this is an uncertain time for affected employees and their families.
“Jobcentre Plus, through its Rapid Response Service, stands ready to support any employee affected.”
Flybe had previously been pushed into administration in March 2020 with the loss of 2,400 jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic battered large parts of the travel market.
Its business and assets were purchased in 2021 by Thyme Opco, which is linked to US hedge fund Cyrus Capital.
Thyme Opco was renamed Flybe Limited.
It had been based at Birmingham Airport.
On the resumption of its flying operations last April, it planned to operate up to 530 flights a week across 23 routes, serving airports such as Belfast City, Birmingham, East Midlands, Glasgow, Heathrow and Leeds Bradford.
Have you been affected by the collapse of Flybe? Have the flight cancellations ruined your plans?
Government homes in on £5bn cladding settlement with housebuilders
Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, is closing in on a multibillion pound deal with Britain’s biggest housebuilders to help resolve the national cladding crisis exposed by the 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster.
Sky News has learnt that major companies including Barratt Developments and Persimmon are preparing for the imminent signing of a legally binding contract with the government that could ultimately cost the industry £5bn or more.
One executive said they expected the final contract to be signed and unveiled as soon as next week, although they cautioned that the timing remained fluid.
Last year, dozens of developers signed a pledge to fix buildings constructed since the early 1990s, with revisions to the deal with government in recent weeks having focused on the scope of companies’ exposure.
The City watchdog is thought to have been involved in discussions with the industry about whether signing the contract would require the approval of shareholders in listed companies such as Barratt, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey.
Sources have estimated the cost of the new Residential Property Developers Tax at up to £3bn and the bill for self-remediation at around £2bn.
A further tax on the industry could raise £3bn, industry executives have concluded, leading some companies and investors to warn that the sector risks seeing a flight of capital.
Earlier this month, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said it was “finalising the legally binding contracts that developers will sign to fix their unsafe buildings, and expect them to do so very soon.
“We will not accept any backsliding on their commitments.
“It is building owners’ legal responsibility to make sure that all buildings are safe.”
FTSE-100 housebuilders have already taken significant financial provisions in their accounts to prepare for the signing of the final government contract.
Some have flagged during recent earnings calls with analysts that they expected an imminent settlement.
“In signing the pledge, we’re saying that we essentially had a commitment that we wanted to sign up to the legal agreement,” David Thomas, Barratt’s chief executive, told analysts this month.
” There’s been a process of discussion regarding the legal agreement that has been ongoing since June last year, so we think we’re getting close to the government publishing the legal agreement, and we would expect in due course that we would sign up to that.”
A spokesman for the Home Builders Federation (HBF) said: “The pledge [signed last year] demonstrated the industry’s commitment to play its part in ensuring leaseholders don’t pay for work needed to make buildings safe.
“We have been working constructively with government to ensure the detailed contract reflects the commitments of the pledge and we await a final version.
“UK housebuilders are taking responsibility and are well progressed with remediating their own buildings and are already paying another £3bn to fund work on buildings built by foreign companies and others.
“Government now needs to deliver on commitments to secure contributions from foreign builders and the material providers at the heart of this issue and avoid targeting UK housebuilders further for buildings built by others”.
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