Grassroots venues back on the brink as a result of omicron and confused government messaging


December 15, 2021

The UK’s grassroots venue network is on the brink of collapse once again as a result of the latest phase of the COVID pandemic and the new Plan B restrictions that have gone into force. That’s according to the Music Venue Trust which, of course, has been supporting and lobbying for grassroots venues ever since the COVID saga began.

Last night Parliament approved the new COVID restrictions for England which aim to restrict the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19, though amid considerable opposition from Conservative MPs. The requirement for clubs and some venues to check the COVID Passports of all customers only passed because of support by the Labour Party.

Some of those opposing COVID Passports in Parliament claimed that the scheme was an unjustifiable attack on civil liberties. Although people will be able to use either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to gain entry into affected venues, so the measure isn’t actually mandating anyone wanting access to clubs and venues to get vaccinated.

Other critics of the scheme are more concerned with logistical matters, in that they question how effective COVID Passport checks really are in restricting the spread of the virus, given the impact the scheme will have on affected businesses, in terms of instigating the checks and likely lost business.

That’s the position taken by the Night Time Industries Association, which has repeatedly warned that forced COVID Passport checks will put a big strain on clubs and venues that are already struggling financially after nearly eighteen months in partial or complete shutdown.

And, the NTIA argues, that has already been seen in Scotland and Wales, where COVID Passport schemes are already in force.

The trade group’s CEO Michael Kill said last night: “We are disappointed that MPs have today voted into law COVID Passports for nightclubs. The NTIA have consistently opposed their introduction due to the many logistical challenges they pose for night time economy businesses, and what we have seen in Scotland and Wales where they have dampened trade by 30% and 26% respectively”.

“It is very disappointing that, after flip flopping on the issue twice, the government have decided to press ahead with the plans despite no evidence of their impact on transmission of the virus”, he added. “This is a slippery path we are going down. I would urge the government to listen to its backbenchers now – this far and no further”.

In addition to the specific new rules, reps for the live music sector are also stressing that the rushed and confused communications that have been coming out of government since the omicron variant started to spread are causing as much – or possibly more – damage as the new regulations.

Not all venues in England will have to check COVID Passports. Although any venue or event classified as a nightclub will have to check for vaccine certificates and COVID tests, for gig venues the requirement kicks in at a 500 capacity for unseated venues and 10,000 for seated venues.

And, of course, some gig venues have already been requesting that customers show proof of vaccine or a negative COVID test since re-opening earlier this year.

But even those venues not directly affected by the new COVID Passport rule are reporting a significant downturn in business since government communications began around omicron, which – of course – has come during a crucial time of the year for venues and night-time businesses.

Based on a survey of the Music Venues Alliance, MVT reports that: “A catastrophic drop in attendance, advance ticket sales and spend per head has hit grassroots music venues since the government announced the implementation of the Plan B restrictions last Wednesday, placing the entire sector back on red alert for the risk of permanent closures”.

“Losses across the sector in this first week of this new phase of the COVID crisis hit nearly £2 million”, it adds, “with 86% of grassroots music venues reporting negative impacts and 61% having to cancel at least one event in the week of 6-13 Dec”.

Although artists – or a member of their crew – testing positive for COVID-19 are behind just over a third of those cancellations, people cancelling private hire bookings and poor ticket sales – both as a result of renewed COVID concerns – were responsible for 31.13% and 23.6% of cancellations respectively.

Commenting on the findings of its latest survey of venues, MVT’s Beverley Whitrick says: “This is the busiest time of the year for grassroots music venues, representing more than 20% of their annual income being raised during the party season”.

“Rapid declines in attendance at this time of year represent an exponential threat to the whole sector”, she adds, “and losses of this magnitude cannot be sustained without throwing hundreds of music venues into crisis mode and at risk of permanent closure. A ‘no show’ isn’t just lost ticket income, it’s lost bar take and excess staff costs”.

After so much effort by the Music Venue Trust, other industry groups and music fans – and, via its Culture Recovery Fund, the government as well – helped to ensure the survival of a really impressive number of grassroots venues in the UK despite the turmoil of the pandemic, the sector is now calling on ministers to provide new support during his latest phase of COVID, to ensure all that past hard work and investment was worth it.

MVT’s Mark Davyd says: “It feels like we are back exactly where we were in March 2020, when confusing government messaging created a ‘stealth lockdown’ – venues apparently able to open but in reality haemorrhaging money at a rate that will inevitably result in permanent closures unless the government acts quickly to prevent it”.

“We have been here before”, he adds. “This time the government already has all the tools in place that it needs to manage this impact and prevent permanent closures in the grassroots music venue sector. The Culture Recovery Fund can be swiftly adapted to mitigate this economic impact, the money is already there and waiting, we just need [Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries] to act quickly”.

He concludes: “The government previously used business rate suspension and VAT cuts to support and sustain the sector. We don’t need to spend time considering the situation; the government already knows what can be done and can choose very quickly to do it”.

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