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Live industry criticises government U-turn on COVID passports and continued lack of cancellation insurance

By | Published on Tuesday 20 July 2021

Live Music

From the end of September, anyone wishing to go to a nightclub in England will have to prove that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before they can enter the building. As of yesterday – so called ‘freedom day’, where most pandemic restrictions were lifted across the country – venues were only advised to check for people’s vaccination status or a recent negative COVID test result.

However, at a press conference yesterday, Prime Minister ‘Boris’ Johnson said that rising cases of COVID-19, particularly among young people, were a concern. This was true before restrictions were lifted, of course, and the U-turn on venue access requirements within hours of so many COVID rules being axed makes the whole situation more confusing.

“I don’t want to have to close nightclubs again as they have elsewhere”, said Johnson. “But it does mean nightclubs need to do the socially responsible thing. As we said last week, we do reserve the right to mandate certification at any point if it’s necessary to reduce transmission. And I should serve notice now that by the end of September, when all over eighteens have had their chance to be double jabbed, we’re planning to make full vaccination the condition of entry to nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather”.

A survey by the Night Time Industries Association last week showed that fewer than 20% of night time businesses intended to check people’s COVID status as a condition of entry as they re-opened yesterday. Many said that implementing such a system in just a week – Johnson having only stated that clubs should voluntarily take that approach the previous Monday – was not feasible.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid then said that “if sufficient measures are not [voluntarily] taken to limit infection, the government will consider mandating the NHS COVID Pass in certain venues at a later date”. The formal issuing on that mandate – within a week – came rather sooner than anyone expected. Although there will be a two month lead in time.

Commenting on Johnson’s announcement yesterday, NTIA CEO Michael Kill said: “So, ‘freedom day’ for nightclubs lasted around seventeen hours then. The announcement from the Prime Minister that COVID passports will be made mandatory for night clubs in September comes after his Health Secretary said only one week ago that they would not be compulsory. What an absolute shambles”.

“Leaving aside the fact that this is yet another chaotic U-turn that will leave night clubs who have been planning for reopening for months [having] to make more changes to the way they operate – this is still a bad idea”, he went on. “80% of nightclubs have said they do not want to implement COVID passports, worrying about difficulties with enforcing the system and a reduction in spontaneous consumers, as well as being put at a competitive disadvantage with pubs and bars that aren’t subject to the same restrictions and yet provide similar environments”.

Finally, he concluded: “The government’s own report into vaccine passports found they were more trouble than they’re worth – so what could possibly explain the about turn, just as millions across the UK experience their first taste of a night out in a year and a half?”

Meanwhile, CEO of live industry trade body LIVE, Greg Parmley added: “The government has had several different positions on COVID certification in the last six months and we will need to see more detail [about the new proposal] before we can understand the full impact for the live music industry. Many festivals and large venues are already adopting some level of COVID certification, and as responsible event organisers, will continue to do so”.

“What we are absolutely clear about, however, is that venues such as small music clubs should not be treated any differently to other similar-sized hospitality businesses such as bars and restaurants when it comes to the need for COVID vaccine certification”, he went on.

As well as condemning the confusing merry-go-round that is the British government’s ongoing handling of the pandemic, LIVE and the Association Of Independent Festivals have also called on ministers to hold to their previous promise of providing state-backed cancellation insurance now that COVID restrictions have been lifted.

With cancellation insurance unavailable on the commercial market, festival organisers have repeatedly called on the government to put in place a state-backed system in order to allow them to go ahead with planning for this summer.

The government has resisted this, and many events have cancelled as a result, unable to risk the high costs of preparing a festival site with little certainty that their events would be able to go ahead, and with no safety net if new COVID circumstances forced them to halt proceedings at the last minute.

Despite refusing to provide insurance while COVID restrictions were in place, ministers have previously indicated that it would be made available once they were lifted.

In March, culture minister Caroline Dinenage told a culture select committee hearing: “I would much rather be able to make an announcement when I am absolutely certain things can go ahead, or at least in a much better sense of predictability that things can go ahead, than announce an indemnity scheme, [and] give people the confidence in order to pull the rug out from underneath them again”.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has also spoken about the possibility of providing insurance once restrictions are lifted, saying in Parliament earlier this month: “I very much understand the industry’s desire for insurance, and I have engaged with it … [Once restrictions are lifted], if there is a market failure, namely that the commercial insurance providers cannot insure for that, we will look at whether we can extend insurance with some sort of government-backed scheme. We are engaging extensively with the Treasury and other government departments to see what that might look like”.

However, all talk of insurance in political circles has since subsided, and no announcement of a government-backed scheme formed part of yesterday’s restriction-lifting.

In another statement on behalf of LIVE yesterday, Parmley said: “The lifting of restrictions today is bittersweet for the live music sector who are currently putting on events in the face of huge financial losses and even bankruptcy, without insurance”.

“The government has repeatedly promised it would step in and the UK is now one of just a handful of countries across Europe not to act”, he added. “If it wants to avoid a summer of silence, they need to fill the gap in the market and provide the insurance to make these events financially viable – and fast”.

Paul Reed, CEO of the Association Of Independent Festivals, added: “Insurance remains the key obstacle to being able to plan with confidence and festival organisers are now hugely exposed, with their entire businesses on the line and the average cost of staging a festival exceeding £6 million”.

“The sector has provided every shred of data and evidence government has requested to support the case for insurance, and the Secretary Of State has repeatedly and publicly committed to act [once restrictions lifted]”, he continued. “Over half of UK festivals are now cancelled because of this, there is still no commercial solution, and it requires urgent intervention”.

Of course, Dinenage’s comments that a decision about insurance would be announced when she was “absolutely certain things can go ahead” may prove the key get out. As yesterday’s announcement about COVID passports in nightclubs shows, it’s still very hard to be certain about anything. Also, that’s not really how insurance works.