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Music and night-time industries criticise UK government’s latest COVID support package

By | Published on Wednesday 22 December 2021


The music and night-time industries yesterday dubbed a new package of COVID support announced by the UK government as being “bizarrely detached from reality” and “bordering on the insulting”. Meanwhile, others criticised the fact that the sector’s many freelancers have so far been left out of the latest support scheme entirely.

Chancellor Of The Exchequer Rishi Sunak had come under intense pressure in recent days to announce specific new financial support for those people and businesses hit hard by the latest COVID-19 surge.

Although the UK government is yet to instigate a full-on lockdown to combat the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, it has basically urged people to stay at home, creating a quasi or pseudo lockdown. As a result live and hospitality businesses are facing a significant slump in custom, coupled with staff shortages as the number of COVID cases spikes once again.

Responding to those calls, Sunak yesterday unveiled a new round of financial support for hospitality and cultural businesses. That mainly involves a one billion pound fund via which eligible businesses can apply for up to £6000 for each of their premises. An additional £30 million is being made available to cultural and heritage organisations via the existing Culture Recovery Fund.

While acknowledging that the government had finally responded to calls for new support in response to the latest COVID surge, representatives for the live and night-time sectors said yesterday that the monies being made available are nowhere near sufficient given the losses businesses are now facing during what is often their most lucrative time of year. Concerns were also expressed about the potential bureaucracy involved in unlocking these new funds.

The basic message was that a much bigger package of support is required, both in terms of the total amount of monies being made available, but also regarding the different kinds of support the government should be offering.

Greg Parmley from live sector trade group LIVE stated: “We welcome the news that the government has started to deliver much-needed financial support, but with the live music sector teetering on the brink, the package falls short of the urgent cash injection businesses need to keep them afloat”.

“The amount of money pales in comparison to the mounting losses faced by the sector and the process will add layers of complexity at a time when businesses are already struggling with skeleton staff rotas and huge losses”, he added. “We have been down this path earlier in the pandemic, with extensive form filling and application processes, by which point it will likely be too late. What we really need is an urgent boost that can help today by leaving money in businesses, such as an emergency reduction in VAT and deferral of loan repayments”.

Meanwhile, Michael Kill from the Night Time Industries Association stated: “Businesses are failing, people are losing their livelihoods and the industry is crippled. Mixed messaging, coupled with additional restrictions, have had a catastrophic impact on our sector over the last two weeks. At this critical point, we need strong leadership and a clear pathway from government with a long term strategy for new COVID variants. The open/close strategy is crucifying businesses. Every pound of help is much needed. But this package is far too little and borders on the insulting”.

In its response, the Music Venue Trust noted that where its members were eligible for the £6000 grant, that support “is intended to mitigate losses for an as yet unknown period in which business has not just fallen, it has completely collapsed. The minimum length of that period, regardless of any restrictions or limitations to business yet to be announced, is six weeks – you can’t simply turn the live music industry on and off like a desk lamp, and tours and events are already cancelled. Not just today, or tomorrow, but for the next three months”.

Regarding the extra £30 million for Culture Recovery Fund, MVT went on: “Our initial response is that this funding seems bizarrely detached from reality. It is certainly completely inadequate to deal with the scale of the problem”.

“We note”, it added, “that grassroots music venues, singled out by the government for specific restrictions since the very start of the crisis, are not even mentioned in today’s statement which once again focuses on ‘theatres, orchestras and museums’ who will be supported ‘through until March 2022’. This is despite the [Department For Digital, Culture, Media & Sport] having all the evidence they need that losses in the grassroots music venue sector alone will run to £22 million by the end of January, let alone the end of March 2022”.

“We are constantly being told that the Culture Recovery Fund will save the day”, it concluded. “For this to be true, it needs to be adequately funded to match the challenges the government is trying to deal with. Today’s statement by The Treasury is not the answer that is needed. The Secretary Of State For Culture must meet with the sector, properly understand the scale of the damage being inflicted, and return to the Treasury with a financial ask that reflects what is required”.

While the funds being made available to clubs and venues may be woeful, so far there has been no new support at all for the many freelance musicians and crew members who have been hit just as severely by the recent spike in cancellations caused by latest COVID surge. And, of course, some of those freelancers have received no support at all from government throughout the pandemic, because of the gaps caused by technicalities in previous support schemes for the self-employed.

The Musicians Union yesterday noted that whilst it “welcomes the Treasury’s announcement of £1 billion in financial support for businesses in the hospitality and leisure industries, the lack of provision for freelance workers leaves the majority of our members uncertain about their future”.

A recent survey of MU members revealed that 86% had had work cancelled as a result of the latest COVID surge, with 41% reporting that they expect to earn under 25% of their usual income in the next two months. And 75% of those surveyed said they anticipated at least a 50% dip in earnings.

MU General Secretary Horace Trubridge said: “This is a particularly busy time for our members and many musicians will have been relying on the festive period and the new year to provide much-needed funds following the devastating effects of lockdown and the well-publicised difficulties. It is absolutely crucial to their survival that the government recognises the economic abyss that our world-class players, performers, writers and teachers are facing. They need support and they need it now”.

That call was echoed by the Music Managers Forum and Featured Artists Coalition. They said in a joint statement: “Artists currently find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place – encouraged by the government to carry on performing, while their audiences are advised to stay at home. With months of uncertainty ahead, this lockdown by stealth is putting their already fragile businesses in real jeopardy. All compounded by the lack of a safety net and insurance schemes that the industry has universally derided as unfit for purpose”.

“While the package announced today may help some venues and institutions, it is essential this is also made available to those appearing on the stage or working behind it”, they added. “Without that concrete support, such as compensation for COVID-related cancellations and viable insurance solutions, we risk artists and tens of thousands of support workers becoming collateral damage to what feels like an unfurling catastrophe”.

Although it now seems unlikely that the UK government will introduce any new formal lockdown restrictions ahead of Christmas Day, many expect such measures to be introduced down the line. And, indeed, in parts the country wider restrictions are already being introduced.

The Scottish government announced a number of new measures yesterday, restricting outdoor events to capacities of 500, while indoor shows will be limited to 200 people seated and 100 people standing. Those restrictions come into force on Boxing Day, so will effect the county’s Hogmanay festivities, with the big Hogmanay street party in Edinburgh now cancelled.

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