When June 21 was announced as the potential date for the grand unlocking, clubbing was all anyone could talk about. The government even released a Clip Art-esque graphic, showing two dancers living their best life under a disco ball.
But when Boris Johnson announced that the final stage of lockdown would be extended until July 19 during Monday evening’s press conference, not a whisper was made about the nightlife industry.
It was “just another kick in the teeth” for the likes of Jeremy Joseph, the owner of G-A-Y, and others in the industry who have been preparing to reopen.
“When people talk about hospitality, they talk about bars, they talk about restaurants, but everybody is ignoring nightclubs and actually, it’s the nightclubs that have the biggest costs and the biggest rents,” he tells HuffPost UK. “We’re just completely ignored.”
London’s Heaven nightclub, G-A-Y’s largest venue, has been closed as a club since March 14 2020. Although the venue has hosted some smaller, seated events, they’ve had to stick to a capacity of 255. The venue usually hosts up to 1,625 people.
“The bills and the majority of costs that you have are the same whether you’re at full capacity or lower capacity, so all we’re doing at the moment is reducing our losses, we’re not making money,” explains Joseph.
G-A-Y’s bars, which have been able to reopen under the guidance, have subsidised Heaven to allow the nightclub to stay open, but it’s still been a struggle, he says. “We’re working day by day to survive, every bill we get in, we pay as we go along. We’re trying to keep our heads above water.”
Nightclubs across the country have been crippled by the pandemic. A recent report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Night Time Economy found that over three-quarters (78%) of all employees in the sector had at some point been on furlough. More than half (51%) of nightclubs have been forced to make staff redundant since last year, compared to 32% of bars and 26% of pubs, where restrictions have been less severe.
Beyond providing 1.3 million jobs, the night time economy is home to a considerable body of freelance workers, particularly in clubs, where promoters, DJs and bouncers are usually self-employed. However, the report found that only 36% of self-employed nightlife workers have been able to claim the Self Employment Income Support Scheme.
It concluded that “without urgent government support, nightlife businesses face extinction.”
Joseph doesn’t want to reopen Heaven until it’s safe to do so, but says better financial support for the nightlife industry is urgently needed to keep venues from folding.
He’s not convinced clubs will be allowed to go back to 100% capacity after July 19 and says Boris Johnson should create a roadmap for their reopening with incremental stages, rather than promise a date he can’t commit to.
“It’s just completely insane. He has absolutely no idea what he’s doing. He doesn’t talk to the industries involved,” says Joseph of the prime minister. “He certainly hasn’t talked to us, and we’ve given him the opportunity many times.”
Bill Brewster, who was one of the founding residents at London’s Fabric and has spent more than 30 years working as a promoter and DJ, is also worried about the longterm impact on the industry. He personally lost “thousands of pounds at a stroke” after Monday’s announcement.
“They have shown time and again, this government doesn’t give a shit about our industry.”
“Even a delay of a fortnight would’ve been costly, but this is so much worse,” he tells HuffPost UK. “They have shown time and again, this government doesn’t give a shit about our industry.”
Other industries – such as the wedding sector, which launched an awareness campaign, #WhatAboutWeddings – have pointed out disparities in the pandemic guidance. Brewster argues the same can be seen for the nightlife industry.
“What really was the point of doing test events which proved transmissibility was relatively low, when we end up in this position?” he asks. “We’re being punished because Boris Johnson was so desperate to make a trade deal with India, that he didn’t close down the borders fast enough.
“By all means, change the dates and obey the data, but do not throw a whole industry to the wolves. Where’s the support? Full crowds allowed at Wimbledon where, of course, there are plenty of Tory voters and donors, but nothing for us?”
Even for those who have found interim work, the restrictions faced by bars and clubs make for a very different livelihood.
Osayuki Omo-Uwamere, who DJs under the name DJ Love, performs at club nights, as well as celebrity and corporate launch parties. Some of these have continued throughout lockdown, but the atmosphere has changed.
“My job is basically to get people to dance and create that atmosphere so it’s a weird one when bouncers are constantly reminding people whilst I’m DJing that they are unable to dance and that if they do they will get kicked out,” she says. “It’s mad.”
“A lot of the venues and clubs that I DJed in before the pandemic will probably never open their doors again and that’s the sad part.”
If club closures continue, she believes people will find alternative outdoor spaces, venues and pop-ups to enjoy live music and DJing.
“We’re seeing that a lot now and I’m DJing at these type of events,” she says. “It’s the club and venue owners who are going to be the most affected by all of this. A lot of the venues and clubs that I DJed in before the pandemic will probably never open their doors again and that’s the sad part.”
The lockdown delay also comes as a blow to avid clubbers like Ellie Campbell, 27, and based in Dalston, London. She moved to the capital specifically for the nightlife and thinks the latest extension “really oversteps the line”.
“Considering the June date has been set in stone for such a long time, it’s adding insult to injury for those who have waited patiently to get back to normality and expand their networks again. Until clubbing and live music returns, social lives for those in their 20s are still seriously curbed by the restrictions,” says Campbell.
“I do have concerns about how nightlife will ever recover without adequate government support for the industry, which doesn’t seem to be a priority. Myself and my peers have made sacrifices about our living and work spaces to enjoy the vibrant nightlife of the big city, so 18 months on and to still be in this situation just makes me feel we’re in suspended animation and are very much being treated as an afterthought. ”
HuffPost UK put the concerns raised by our interviewees to the government, asking specifically about the lack of financial support businesses say they’ve received. A Treasury spokesperson said that local authorities have nearly £1bn of discretionary grant funding remaining, which they’re encouraged to use to support nightclubs and other hard-hit businesses.
“Nightclubs have received Restart Grants worth up to £18,000 per venue to support them over the past few months,” they added. “Nightclubs will also benefit from business rates relief worth 75% across the whole year for most businesses, a VAT cut, and the furlough scheme.
“We are committed to helping businesses and individuals through the pandemic and deliberately went long with our support to provide certainty over the coming months.”
But the question remains, if the industry does survive, will it have any workers left? The APPG report found that 85% of people working in the nightlife sector are considering leaving it.
Joseph says the mental health impact on workers has been catastrophic. He personally lives alone and hasn’t been able to enjoy other lockdown restrictions easing because he can’t afford to test positive and have to self-isolate at the moment. Lockdown continues for him, without contact with friends and family.
“He [Boris Johnson] makes me feel worthless. He makes what I do feel like it’s worth nothing,” he says.
“At the moment I’m working seven days a week to just survive and I’m done. I was done months ago. My love for this job has completely gone and I will never get it back. I just want to escape now. I don’t want to be here any more. And [Johnson] has done that by the way he’s treated people and the way he’s treated this industry.”
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