Shopper numbers across Britain's high streets fell 2.6% over the Dec. 18-19 weekend versus the previous weekend as the highly contagious Omicron variant of coronavirus kept people away, researcher Springboard said on Monday.

It said shopper numbers, or footfall, plunged 8.5% in central London and 6.4% in cities outside of the capital.

The outcome was better in smaller market towns, shopping centres and retail parks, with footfall up 3.4%, 0.5% and 4.7% respectively, Springboard said.

Britain first voiced concern about the Omicron variant on Nov. 25. Two weeks later Prime Minister Boris Johnson stepped up COVID-19 restrictions in England, asking people to work from home, wear masks in public places and use certificates of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to slow the spread. 

Springboard said total shopper numbers over the week to Dec. 18, traditionally one of the biggest shopping weeks of the year, were up 5.5% versus the previous week.

The gap in footfall from the 2019 level was 19.1% last week, but footfall was 22.5% above 2020 when many shops were closed during a general lockdown.

"The growing nervousness of consumers meant that (footfall) increases dwindled with each day that passed," said Springboard director Diane Wehrle.

"This provided a forewarning for subdued performance of bricks and mortar stores and destinations over the weekend, exactly what occurred."

Omicron has heightened fears of a muted end to the year. Last week electricals retailer Currys said its market had softened and online fashion retailer Boohoo warned on profit. 

But while Britain's economy looks set to take another hit from the latest wave of the pandemic, analysts believe it is unlikely to be anything like as severe as the plunge when the country went into its first lockdown last year.

Pantheon Macroeconomics estimated the economy was currently on course to shrink by 1% between November and January.

That would grow to a 2% contraction if the government reverts to controls it introduced last spring - which included limiting pubs and restaurants to outdoor table service - or a 6% slump in the event of a full lockdown, Pantheon said.

By comparison, Britain's economy shrank by 19% in the April-June period of last year.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak has been discussing possible new support measures for the hospitality industry, which has borne the brunt of the Omicron impact.

Data from online booking site OpenTable showed bookings in Britain in the week to Sunday fell by 14% from the previous week and were 23% lower than a month ago.

(Reporting by James Davey and William Schomberg Editing by Mark Heinrich) ((