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Night-time sector welcomes PM’s rapid testing comments but calls for rapid implementation too

By | Published on Tuesday 16 February 2021


The night-time sector has welcomed a statement from UK Prime Minister ‘Boris’ Johnson which finally discussed a process via which clubs, theatres and other venues could re-open amid ongoing COVID restrictions, mainly with rapid on-site virus testing.

Specific details of the plans are still being finalised ahead of the publication of another pandemic road map next week. Meanwhile, night-time companies are still calling for further financial support to ensure that they are still in business by the time COVID rules start to relax.

Johnson yesterday talked about rapid on-site COVID testing as being a preferred approach to enable the re-opening of venues and night-time business that have either been shut entirely since last March, or which struggling to find a commercially viable way of operating when social distancing rules were in force in the latter half of last year.

Of course, many venues, live music firms and ticketing companies have been investigating such an approach for allowing higher capacity shows ever since last summer, when it became clear just how long-term the impact of COVID would be on the live entertainment business.

At his latest COVID briefing, Johnson said: “What we are thinking of at the moment is a route that relies on mass vaccination and lateral flow testing, [ie] rapid testing for those bits of the economy that are the toughest nuts to crack, such as nightclubs or theatres, those parts of the economy we couldn’t get open last year. And I think that will be the route that we go down and that businesses will go down”.

The other proposal that has been floated alongside rapid testing is vaccination passports, so that those who have been vaccinated can enter venues without being tested.

However, ministers have argued that it is not yet known if those who have been vaccinated can still transmit the virus to others. That makes the rapid testing approach more attractive, until the vast majority of the population is vaccinated and enough is known about the vaccines to allow things to return to something nearing normal.

Of course, actually administering tests on-site at venues and shows is quite a logistical challenge. How easy it is for people to wait for testing in a socially distanced way and then wait for their test results before properly entering a building depends on a venue’s front-of-house facilities. Many in the industry support systems whereby people can get tested ahead of a show and prove their negative result to gain admission.

Nevertheless, despite these challenges, reps for the night-time and live sectors were pleased that Johnson specifically talked about plans to get clubs and venues back open.

CEO of the Night Time Industries Association, Michael Kill, said: “Finally we have some acknowledgement from the Prime Minister and government on the existence of late night economy businesses, including nightclubs, theatres, casinos and late bars, particularly as they are some of the hardest hit since the start of the pandemic”.

“We have been lobbying government with a strategy for the safe opening of these important cultural institutions for some time now”, he added. “Using lateral flow testing has been a consistent narrative, and [we] feel now, with this acknowledgement, we will be given the opportunity to deliver pilot schemes which will substantiate the ability for this sector to open safely at the appropriate time, but more importantly we will be able to plan and prepare for that opportunity”.

The government’s next COVID road map is due to be published next week and could include more details about possible pilots. The industry will be hoping that any such moves have a sense of urgency about them.

Speaking to the BBC, promoter and Manchester’s Night Time Economy Adviser Sacha Lord said: “The night time and live music industry has been discussing the need for on-site rapid testing for over five months, and we have suggested this on multiple occasions to MPs and during select committee hearings. My fear is that they take another five months to get moving, which the industry simply doesn’t have”.

Even if rapid piloting of rapid testing is achieved, there remains the fact that many venues and night-time businesses need further support from the government, especially as many existing COVID support schemes start to come to an end in March.

That includes financial support, but also things like the forfeiture moratorium that stops landlords from taking legal action against tenants over COVID-caused rent arrears.

Kill has called for those measures to be extended beyond March. He told reporters: “Over 88% of nightclub businesses are over two quarters of rent in arrears, and we are poised for a windfall of landlords taking action at the end of March when the forfeiture moratorium comes to end”.