McDonald’s is set to hire 20,000 staff in the UK and Ireland as part of a wider investment push, despite the damage to the hospitality sector from the pandemic.

Plans to open more than 50 new restaurants over the next year come as the high street contends with a labour shortage that has resulted in rising wages for UK restaurant employees. Both Brexit and the pandemic have prompted overseas workers to leave Britain.

The relaxation of social distancing rules, which will enable restaurants to bring in more staff, has paved the way for the recruitment push, the US group said.

Its openings were part of a broader investment plan under which its existing estate would receive an upgrade, including adding “Grab & Go” options in areas with a high population of workers. McDonald’s said it would also be trialling more flexible store layouts.

Restaurants and other hospitality businesses have received support from the furlough scheme during the pandemic, as well as from a business rates holiday and a temporary ban on commercial evictions.

But Covid-19 has taken a heavy toll nonetheless, after multiple lockdowns forced venues to shutter or sell only takeaways for long periods. Many smaller venues have closed and others say they do not anticipate being able to pay rent arrears built up during the pandemic.

However, some well-funded businesses are taking the opportunity to expand.

Itsu, the high street sushi chain, said on Sunday it had sold a stake to the private equity investor Bridgepoint that would enable it to open 100 outlets and hire 2,000 more people over five years. This comes despite the group securing rent cuts under a company voluntary arrangement last year.

Itsu founder Julian Metcalfe said the group was getting back to pre-pandemic levels of customer visits.

“The pandemic has caused chaos and so much suffering in our industry on top of the looming challenge of a severe shortage of young European chefs and huge food inflation,” he said. “The truth is, despite these difficulties Itsu’s modern menu is keeping us busy and buoyant.”

Paul Pomroy, chief executive of McDonald’s for the UK and Ireland, said: “There is no doubt the pandemic has had a huge impact on many people’s employment opportunities and threatened the future of high streets up and down the country . . . the moves we’ve announced today reflect our commitment to continue to innovate and invest in the local communities and economies we serve.”

McDonald’s operates 1,300 restaurants across the UK under a franchise system, with about 200 local franchisees and 120,000 workers.

The company has emerged relatively unscathed from the pandemic, thanks in part to its delivery and drive-through offerings. Global comparable sales were down 7.7 per cent in 2020 from the previous year.