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MPs join industry in criticising delay in publishing findings of UK government’s Events Research Programme

By and | Published on Wednesday 23 June 2021


The UK government yesterday said that it would publish the results of its Events Research Programme “very soon” amid mounting criticism over the delays in making the findings of that research public. Meanwhile some stats from the research have leaked, mainly relating to the anticipated economic impact of keeping different COVID safety measures in place even once full capacity shows return.

It has been claimed that ministers have delayed publication of the results of the ERP because its findings pretty much contradict last week’s policy decision to postpone the return of full capacity events by another month. Ministers have also been accused of extending the programme so that they can cherry-pick events that will be popular with voters, allowing the selected few to proceed despite current COVID rules.

The leaked economic impact report – published by Politico – shows that the government is well aware of how big a negative effect continued restrictions on live events are having on the industry. It also shows that a number of possible safety measures that have been proposed even for stage four of the government’s COVID road-map – when full capacity shows can return – could have a major impact on the revenues generated by the live industry.

According to Politico, possible safety measures assessed regarding economic impact include mandatory facemasks, restricted capacities, a ban on food and alcohol sales, and the requirement to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test before attending a show.

Implementing all four of these would result in billions of pounds in losses, with revenues just 69% of those in 2019. Mandatory facemasks and an alcohol ban alone would mean the live sector would only return to revenues of 78% of 2019 levels. Meanwhile, just having a facemasks requirement would hit revenues too, so they’d likely reach 82% of 2019 levels.

The key cause of the fall in revenues, the study shows, is that many of the proposed safety measures would put people off attending events altogether, resulting in lower ticket sales. A survey of ticketbuyers found that people would be 28% less likely to go to an event if facemasks are obligatory, while banning food and drink sales would make that 43% less likely to attend. Only proof of vaccination or a negative test would make people more likely to attend an event, providing an increase of 15%.

A government spokesperson told Politico that while restrictions like facemasks and a booze ban have been assessed as part of the ERP, ministers are still considering removing pretty much all restrictions of that kind when the country moves into stage four of the COVID plan. Which would be a move welcomed by the live sector. Although the industry would prefer to have all this information first hand, rather than via leaks and government responses to leaks.

Commenting on the leak this morning, CEO of live music industry trade body LIVE, Greg Parmley, said: “Today’s leak of some government Events Research Programme data confirms what we have been saying for the last year – that prolonged closure or lingering restrictions will be financially devastating for the live music industry. The ERP was supposed to give us the answers to how we reopen and the government’s continued refusal to publish the report is both baffling and unacceptable. Every day that we are closed unnecessarily means millions lost to the economy and people across the UK losing their livelihoods”.

The ERP began earlier this year and involved the staging and monitoring of a series of cultural, sporting and other events – both outdoors and indoors – staged with ever increasing capacities to test the risks such events pose in terms of COVID infections, and what measures event organisers can take to mitigate any risks. All indications are that researchers have found such measures mean that full capacity shows can proceed without any real increased chances of COVID spreading.

It was hoped that the results of the ERP would be published last week, allowing promoters to start factoring in the findings of the research into their event planning, so that they can ensure their events are as safe as possible. However, no results have as yet been published.

Instead, the government postponed the lifting of those COVID rules still in place in England, meaning that full capacity shows are unlikely to return until at least 19 Jul. It’s been rumoured the Department Of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport was ready to publish initial ERP findings, but was told not to as those findings would basically say that there is no need to further postpone the return of full capacity shows, contradicting current government policy.

However, the delay is creating yet more uncertainty for the live entertainment sector and contributing to the cancellation of yet more events and festivals that are due to take place later this summer when, in theory, current COVID rules should have lifted.

Organisers of Kendal Calling cancelled their 2021 edition on Monday, explaining that without access to the findings of the ERP “there are numerous aspects of the festival we cannot plan, and which could lay us wide open to last minute unforeseen regulations or requirements which could scupper an already built festival. Capacity or density restrictions, track and trace protocol, testing regime, COVID certification – a host of unknown actions required yet potentially requested too late to be implemented”.

The festival’s organisers added: “Our understanding is that the Department For Digital, Culture, Media And Sport are keen to publish the ERP findings and guidance, but that it now does not fit around Number Ten’s communications plan. This is insulting to our entire industry, who have been awaiting the results of a pilot event that took place almost two months ago to inform our approach to staging events safely this summer”.

Representatives for both the live and night-time sectors have called on the government to urgently publish the full findings of the ERP, and those calls were echoed by MPs in Parliament yesterday.

An ‘urgent question’ was posed by Labour MP Jo Stevens, who stated: “The terms of reference for the [ERP] were published on 22 Feb; we are four months on and no results have been published. Last month, the [culture secretary] said in a newspaper interview that fifteen of the 58,000 ERP participants had tested positive for COVID, but still no results have been published … What is the secret? Why will the government not tell the public, the industry and us what the results are?”

“All those who have spent time and money on organising and hosting test events, and those who rely on the programme, would like to see the results”, she added. “They wanted to see them in real time or, at the very least, at regular intervals over the past four months. Without seeing the results, how can they plan for the summer? How are the public to understand the government’s plan for the sector?”

She went on: “Organisations involved in the ERP have told me that a report with those good results was produced by the Department For Digital, Culture, Media And Sport, but they were not allowed to see it. They also told me that Number Ten refused to allow the report to be published last week because it did not fit with the communications grid. Did Number Ten block publication of the report last week?”

Stevens then noted that the ERP has been extended and more events have been included, but there is confusion over how participating events are being chosen – with Andrew Lloyd Webber refusing an invitation to include his new West End show in the scheme because of concerns certain parts of the sports and entertainment industries are being treated more favourably than others.

“What evidence are the government using to make decisions about pilot events?”, she asked. “Why are some organisations getting the go-ahead to test events and not others? Andrew Lloyd Webber refused to join the programme because the rest of the industry was not being treated equally; do companies have to have the Prime Minister’s mobile number to run a test event?”

“Kendal Calling was cancelled yesterday because its application to participate in the third phase of the ERP was refused”, she added. “Under what criteria was Wimbledon accepted as a pilot? When was that agreed? Will there be a fourth stage of the ERP if restrictions remain in place for the sector beyond 19 Jul? Finally, will the minister just publish the ERP results today?”

The Department For Digital, Culture, Media & Sport sent junior minister Nigel Huddleston to face MPs on this issue. In his non-answer to Stevens’ questions, he said: “When we announced the programme, we outlined our intention to release the report prior to step four [of our road map for relaxing COVID rules] and that is exactly what we will do: we will release the report very soon. The ERP report is subject to a comprehensive and rigorous co-ordination and approval process across departments; the academic institutions that have been involved in the programme; and the ERP governance board”.

As for how events are being chosen for the latest phase of the ERP, he waffled on: “The programmes have been selected in consultation with the science advisers on the Events Research Programme science board. Those events involved in the latest phase, phase three, have been approached based on the advice we received on the information we need to get out of the Events Research Programme. They were approached on an equal basis. We will announce further ERP programmes shortly”.

Confirming there is cross-party concern about the delay in publishing the findings of the ERP, Conservative MP Julian Knight – Chair of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee – also expressed concern. He told Parliament: “Many of the event organisers who took part in the pilots did so at a financial loss, purely to help their industry and the country more widely, so the delay in getting the vital data into the public domain is a huge let-down and is undoubtedly leading to cancellations, with Kendal Calling festival being the latest example just yesterday”.

Addressing Huddleston, he added: “Will my honourable friend commit to releasing all available data as a matter of urgency and writing to the select committee with what we know to date? Does he recognise that the clear failure to do so adds to a growing impression that some decision makers are being swayed by unaccountable scientists without the proper and relevant data being put before them? After all, we are a democracy, not some sort of scientocracy”.

Despite saying he “agreed” with Knight, and acknowledging that promoters need guidance “as far in advance as possible in order to help with events and logistical arrangements when they open”, Huddleston argued that the delays were unavoidable, partly because of “the importance of making sure that information is correct and data is accurate”. He then insisted that “we want to get the information and data out very soon”.

Reps for the live sector welcomed the discussion in Parliament, despite Huddleston’s non-answers. That included Parmley, who said shortly after the Parliamentary session: “We welcome today’s urgent question on the Events Research Programme. The government’s refusal to publish the data from the ERP has left the live music industry in the dark about how and when we will be able to reopen”.

“We have worked tirelessly with the government to produce the scientific evidence needed to reopen at full capacity. This is why we have participated and paid for pilot events that have taken place over last two months. These events were a huge success and show, alongside every other international pilot, that with the right mitigations full capacity live events are safe”.

Another music festival cancelled its 2021 edition yesterday – despite its late July dates being after the point when it’s hoped COVID restrictions will be lifted – because of the ongoing uncertainty caused by the delay in the publication of the ERP’s findings, along with the ongoing lack of cancellation insurance. UK ministers also continue to knock back proposals for state-backed insurance for the 2021 festival season.

Organisers of the Truck Festival said: “We’ve explored every possible avenue to make Truck happen this year. However, with the delay to the roadmap and without the necessary assurances and guidance from the government, it’s become too risky for us to put the event on and deliver it to the high standard that you know, love and greatly deserve”.

Commenting on the impact the government’s current policies on the ERP findings and cancellation insurance are having on the music festival sector, the CEO of the Association Of Independent Festivals, Paul Reed, yesterday told NME: “The cancellation of Kendal Calling is heartbreaking and, like many other festival cancellations, was entirely avoidable”.

“The live music and festival industry has spent months participating and investing in pilot events to develop a rationale for how events can safely reopen with the right mitigations in place. Government are now delaying the publication of the ERP report. We call for full transparency and for the release of the report, which will demonstrate how we can safely reopen and inform relevant guidance”.

“Over 90% of festivals still planning for this year take place after 19 Jul and could still go ahead”, he added. “But they cannot continue to plan and invest without a government-backed insurance scheme”.

“The industry has made a compelling case for this over six months and most countries across the rest of Europe now have indemnity schemes in place to protect their festival industries, placing them firmly on the road to recovery. The absence of this is pushing the UK’s festival industry to a cliff-edge, evidenced by the fact that over a third of UK festivals have already cancelled, with many more to follow”.

“Festivals require months of planning and cost millions of pounds to stage”, he concluded. “If the government has confidence in 19 Jul as a terminus date, they will back this now. Waiting until after step four will be far too late for the vast majority of festivals this summer”.

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