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Music industry cautiously welcomes plan for lifting England’s COVID lockdown, but says more financial support required

By | Published on Tuesday 23 February 2021


The live music and night-time industries have cautiously welcomed the latest road map for taking England out of COVID lockdown, though have also stressed that further clarity and further financial support will be needed. Which means, having digested ‘Boris’ Johnson’s latest COVID update yesterday, all eyes will now be on the upcoming budget speech from Chancellor Of The Exchequer Rishi Sunak next week.

Johnson’s proposed schedule for lifting COVID restrictions is pretty cautious, but still subject to change, of course. It all depends on the continued success of the vaccine rollout, and continued research into the efficacy of the vaccines, especially in relation to new variants of the coronavirus.

However, if all goes to plan, schools will return on 8 Mar, albeit with mass testing and wider user of face masks at secondary schools. Groups of up to six people or two households will be able to gather again in outdoor spaces from the end of March, with much of the high street and outdoor hospitality then re-opening on 12 Apr.

Those groups of six people or two households could then be able to meet in pubs and restaurants from 18 May, with venues also re-opening around that time, albeit will some social distancing rules still in force. The ambition is then for social-distancing rules to be phased out in June, with things potentially returning to normal on 21 Jun, including those night-time businesses that have been entirely shut since last March finally re-opening.

So, potentially some decent light at the end of the tunnel. Although every one of those targets is currently accompanied by a “hopefully”. Rules regarding international travel could also still be in place, although they are set to be reviewed too in April.

While some pencilled-in dates are useful for the music industry, some further clarity is still required – for example, whether the proposals for on-site COVID testing at venues or vaccine passports will allow higher capacity shows sooner. And regarding how those schemes will actually work in the short and longer term. We know the government is currently keener on the former than the latter.

And, perhaps more importantly, if venues and clubs are still going to be closed, or at least constrained, until June, then further financial assistance will be required, including the extension of the current VAT cut on ticket sales and possibly additional grants for cultural businesses.

Plus there remains the need for government-backed insurance for larger events if festivals scheduled for July and August are to proceed with plans, despite the knowledge this road map is subject to further change, potentially resulting in cancellations beyond June.

Commenting on yesterday’s announcement from Johnson, Music Venue Trust CEO Mark Dayvd said: “It is good to hear the government provide conditions under which initially socially distanced events, and then fuller capacity events, can take place. Based on this information, it is now possible to imagine how we revive live in grassroots music venues and develop that work into the full return of our domestic music scene”.

However, he added, “we note that this road map once again singles out live performance events as a specific risk which require that the sector is treated in a special way. Since March 2020, we have made the case to the government that if this is the case, based on their interpretation of the data, then it is logical that the government will choose to address that specific status with sector-specific financial support. In light of today’s announcements, the budget next week must clearly lay out exactly how the government is going to provide that sector-specific support”.

Paul Reed, CEO of the Association Of Independent Festivals, made similar calls for further government support. Based on Johnson’s road map, “[we] are optimistic that many of our member festivals may be able to go ahead in some capacity later on this year”, he said.

However, “there are still some urgent points of clarity that need to be made around the exact requirements that festival organisers will need to meet, in particular around testing and COVID certification. We look forward to engaging closely with government on the Events Research Programme and again stress that we are rapidly approaching the decision cut off point for the vast majority of festivals at the end of March. If a complete picture is not given by this time, it will be too late for many to stage events later in the year”.

“We also appreciate that this is a best case scenario and that the government reserves the right to delay the easing of lockdown restrictions if the data dictates”, he continued. “Festival organisers only want to return when it is safe to do so but, if the easing of restrictions does lose momentum and events are suddenly cancelled as a result, it is vital that our sector receives swift and targeted government support to compensate. In addition, government intervention on insurance and VAT remain critical”.

UK Music CEO Jamie Njoku-Goodwin echoed the call for further government interventions, especially around insurance. Welcoming the schedule that has now been provided, he said “it is vital that our industry gets the continued economic support it needs to keep us going through to the point we can restart”.

“The prospect of there being no legal impediments to live music events means issues like insurance are now even more pressing”, he added. “They now present one of the final barriers to getting events going this summer”.

Looking further ahead, Njoku-Goodwin went on: “While the astounding success of the vaccine rollout means the end of the health emergency is in sight, the economic toll of this pandemic will be with us for a long time to come – making dynamic growth industries like the UK music industry more important than ever. The music industry can play a key role in the post-pandemic economic and social recovery, and live music events could be the shot in the arm that Britain needs as we look to bounce back from this pandemic”.

A final call for further financial assistance came from the Night Time Industries Association. The night-time sector is pleased that Johnson’s more recent statements, including yesterday’s road map speech, have specifically mentioned the challenges facing clubs and similar businesses that have been in total shutdown for nearly a year now. However, with the re-opening of clubs at the end of the current timeline, extra urgent support is needed.

NTIA CEO Michael Kill told reporters: “We are pleased to hear within the Prime Minister’s statement the inclusion of a timeline for night-time economy businesses, in particular some of the hardest hit businesses, many of which have been closed since March 2020, like nightclubs, bars and casinos. Despite this, our evidence suggests that 85% of those who work in the night-time economy are considering leaving the sector. The sector urgently needs additional clarity on reopening and critical financial support from the Chancellor if we are to avoid economic and social damage that will last a generation”.

Johnson’s road map for lifting COVID restrictions only applies to England. Executives in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are working on their own plans for slowly easing lockdown.