Festivals are back this summer, if Boris Johnson’s roadmap is anything to go by. On June 21, he hopes to scrap all legal limits on social contact and reopen the final closed sectors of the economy that have been shut since March 2020.
“LET’S GO,” blurted a spokesperson from the Reading and Leeds Twitter account soon after the government announcement, revealing the two festivals would go ahead in summer 2021.
Other festival organisers were a little more cautious. Boomtown, a living theatre festival, tweeted: “Of course there are still bumps in the road ahead but rest assured we’re doing absolutely everything we can to make sure our incredible community can dance together again this August.”
There are around 975 festivals in the UK, and last summer, almost all were cancelled due to the pandemic. A handful of smaller events managed to take place, like the Gisburne Park Pop Up, which HuffPost UK attended.
Still, many have released tickets for people to buy ahead of summer 2021 – even though other festivals have already announced they’ve cancelled. But it’s one thing to put tickets on sale – and another to actually put on a festival.
We really hope *fingers crossed* festivals can go ahead as planned – but here are some unfortunate realities that may keep you knee deep in box sets rather than sticky British mud this summer.
1. Festival owners often don’t get paid until after festivals take place.
This could be a problem. Most festival owners don’t get the cash from ticket sales by ticketing companies until after the festival has happened, explains Paul Reed from the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF). Otherwise, ticketing companies would be in the red if they paid festivals in the lead-up, then something stopped the festival from happening.
So, festival owners need to have a fair amount of trust that the festival is actually going to go ahead in order to start paying to build the festival site, and paying artists their wages ahead of time. They basically need assurance they won’t lose a tonne of money if they do need to cancel.
But of course, if new variants crop up, or outbreaks occur, the government’s plans to end social distancing could be delayed – meaning there’s a chance festivals won’t go ahead. “I can’t give that guarantee, of course not,” Boris Johnson told a Downing Street press conference when asked if he’d rule out another lockdown. “Because we’re battling with nature, with a disease that is capable of mutating and changing.”
2. Government-backed insurance is crucial, but yet to be confirmed.
“The average cut off point for festivals in making decisions and financial commitments for this year is end of March,” says Reed – this date is based on a member survey, responding to concerns about the festival planning cycle and advanced costs. “This is why we need government-backed insurance to plan.”
March may seem early, but festivals take months of planning, so payments need to be made upfront to enable workers to actually build the festivals.
Government-backed insurance for festivals and large-scale events is crucial, in the case of forced cancellations. But it isn’t included as part of the financial support packages announced, including the additional £300 million pledged by Rishi Sunak to support culture. In a statement following the budget, Reed said: “We welcome the extension to the furlough scheme and continued support for the self-employed. However, independent festival organisers would much rather mobilise their staff to plan a full and successful festival season this summer.
“As we have repeatedly stressed, the only way they can do this is with a government-backed insurance scheme that covers Covid-19 related cancellation. The chancellor confirmed the extension of the government-backed restart scheme for film and TV productions – a similar safety net needs to be put in place before the end of March to avoid mass cancellations throughout the UK’s festival market.”
Before the budget was announced, the AIF said in its member survey, 92.5% of respondents said they can’t stage events without this insurance.
“Analysis suggests that, for a festival taking place in early July, an estimated 40% of total costs will need to be paid before June 14 – the date when the government will make a decision on Step 4 of the roadmap,” said the AIF.
“20% of these costs are payable in April and include not only artist, production and infrastructure deposits, but costs that are essential to events being allowed to go ahead, such as policing, medical provision and licensing.”
3. Results of research taking place between now and then could throw up roadblocks.
The Department for Digital, Media, Culture & Sport (DMCS) will be running an Events Research Programme in April to look at how events with large crowd sizes might be able to run without social distancing.
In a document published by the government, the department say the pilots will “examine how such events can take place without the need for social distancing using other mitigations such as testing”.
The trials could predict new spreading patterns and behaviours of the virus which could, at worst case, rule out the potential for festivals to take place.
“A lot is riding on that programme, as it will hopefully determine how larger events can operate this summer without social distancing and what systems will need to be in place based on evidence, research and pilots,” says Reed.
“Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s positive the government has committed to determining what the enabling factors are, including exploring testing and Covid certification.”
4. The vaccine rollout could affect things.
As it stands, all adults in the UK are supposed to receive their first vaccine by the end of July. If the rollout runs to schedule, most young adults will have had one vaccine dose by that point.
Even though events could take place from June 21, many may not be able to attend if rules were in place that requested people to be vaccinated before attending. If this were the case, booking events in August may make more sense to give punters a higher chance of having had the first vaccine.
All of this detail is yet to confirmed, though – and might not become an issue. “I personally don’t think the vaccine rollout will be where any of this falls down,” adds Reed. “The NHS is doing an extraordinary job in rolling the vaccine out and, in fairness, it’s an area in which the government had foresight in terms of procurement.” However...
5. ‘Covid certification’ is likely to be a sticky area.
The vaccine rollout may go swimmingly, but so-called “vaccine passports” could be an issue. What will constitute as a “Covid-safe” or “Covid-certified” festival-goer? “There are going to be mixed views on Covid certification across the sector and in wider society,” says Reed. “It could throw up a myriad of issues around discrimination.”
There are issues around privacy, what a vaccine passports would look like, and how they can roll out a code across all festivals. Research into this is ongoing right now. The Covid-19 group at the Royal Society of the Oxford University has set out 12 criteria, says Reed – “and these are a step in the right direction”.
The criteria that need to be satisfied in order to deliver a vaccine passport could potentially include: meeting a benchmark for Covid-19 immunity, be secure for personal data, and meet certain ethical standards, the research states.
6. Mass testing may not work at larger-scale festivals.
Reed says on-the-gate testing would be “logistically challenging” for many to do, even with additional space onsite. “I imagine the focus is going to be on pre testing and certification of a test and / or vaccination,” he adds.
Even though many festivals, like Reading and Leeds, have given their go-ahead, logistical details around testing are yet to be confirmed.