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Live and night-time industries criticise latest COVID rules for England

By | Published on Tuesday 24 November 2020


The live music and night-time sectors have criticised the new three-tier COVID restrictions for England announced by Prime Minister ‘Boris’ Johnson yesterday, which come into force next week. Of particular concern is a restriction on alcohol sales in tier two.

The current country-wide COVID lockdown in England ends next week and will be replaced by another three tier system, so that rules differ around the country depending on infection rates in each region. Although we don’t yet know what tiers will apply where, it is thought more of the country could be in tiers two and three than before the current full-on lockdown went into force.

In tiers one and two, pubs, restaurants and venues will be able to re-open, albeit with social distancing rules still in place, reducing the available capacity for shows. As expected, the unpopular 10pm curfew is being axed, although last orders will still have to be taken at 10pm, with hospitality businesses actually closing an hour later. The Night Time Industries Association had already criticised the forced last orders rule before it was confirmed by Johnson yesterday.

However, the real controversy relates to additional alcohol restrictions in tier two. At that level businesses will only be able to sell alcohol for consumption on their premises providing it is accompanying by a “substantial meal”. That, of course, is a big problem for those pubs where food sales are a small part of the business. But it’s an even bigger problem for venues, where customers are much less likely to be seeking a “substantial meal”, and most venues couldn’t provide one even if they were.

Given that for many venues, especially smaller venues, alcohol sales are vital to make shows commercially viable – and, indeed, attractive to many ticket-buyers – that limitation is a major problem. It basically means venues based in tier two areas will be back in the frustrating position where they can technically stage socially distanced shows, but realistically cannot.

With that in mind, reps for the industry are calling for ticketed shows to be excluded from the tier two alcohol restrictions, so that basically buying a ticket is equated with buying a meal.

The Music Venue Trust said yesterday: “[We have] repeatedly detailed to the government that income within the grassroots [venues] sector derives 65% from wet sales and 35% from ticket sales. It is therefore not possible to deliver an economically viable event in this sector without the financial support provided by alcohol sales. In addition, 92% of grassroots music venues do not have the necessary facilities to provide substantial food”.

“We applaud the government’s intention to allow live music to resume where it can be safely delivered”, it went on, and “we believe that this ambition can be delivered within the guidelines by identifying the purchase of a ticket as having equivalent intention by the consumer to the purchase of a meal. The consumption of food and the consumption of culture as the main purpose of an individual’s behaviour could, and should, be treated equally”.

“Failure to reach equivalency between food and culture on this issue results in a distorted market”, the trade group added, “where an individual can choose to attend a restaurant, consuming as much alcohol as they wish prior to a gig, but upon arrival at the event cannot consume any alcohol at all. We believe therefore that common sense within the restrictions is the most likely route by which the public will understand and comply with them”.

Those calls were echoed by Greg Parmley, CEO of the new live-sector wide trade group for the UK, LIVE. He told reporters: “It is hugely disappointing that the new tier system could lead to the closure of hundreds of small music venues up and down the country”.

“More than 90% of small music venues cannot serve substantial meals”, he went on, “and will be classed as being the same as a ‘wet pub’ and closed under tier two of the new system, despite people primarily being there to enjoy the music. We call on the government to make an exemption from those restrictions for ticketed artistic and cultural events in music venues in order to save them from closure at this crucial time”.

Speaking for the wider night-time sector, NTIA boss Micheal Kill said the new COVID rules “show a complete lack of consideration and understanding of our sector” and “will have a catastrophic impact on thousands of businesses and jobs across the sector by the end of the year”.

He went on: “For many business owners this is beyond ignorance. This is tantamount to systematically culling our industry with intent. The government has simply got this wrong. It is an appalling misjudgment. Our sector has worked incredibly hard alongside government departments to ensure that our businesses are ‘COVID safe’, only to be hit again with unworkable restrictions that have no evidence base”.

While acknowledging the ongoing financial support available to help cover the wages of those employees unable to work because of COVID restrictions, Kill added: “Sadly many of these businesses will not survive to retain their staff and will suffer from a continuation of current extreme problems around cash fluidity, commercial rent debt and exit strategy. We can’t help but feel that our industry is being sacrificed for other sectors to open during the festive period”.