David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.
Many industries face challenges from the Coronavirus, but few suffer the absolute shut down imposed on live entertainment and sport. ]Even the hospitality industry can see (some) light at the end of the tunnel. From live music, worth £1.1 billion to the economy, through theatreland and concert halls to the giant industries of football and rugby, sustained social distancing means economic collapse.
Everybody is expecting the Prime Minister to announce a reduction of the two metre separation down to one metre. But, in venues where people can move about, they will bunch together regardless; think of the atmosphere at an exciting live gig or in the closing furlongs of a horse race.
Equally, in venues with seats, any model which leaves most of them empty will lead to colossal losses – and does anyone imagine fans will remain socially distanced at a football match when a goal is scored? There was certainly no real social distancing at the Atalanta game in Milan, which was held responsible for a massive spike in Italian infections. There, every one of the home team’s four goals was met with hugging, kissing, and high fives.
At a time when we are still struggling to modify fourteen-day quarantine proposals, it is worth stepping back and asking how many tourists will even want to come to Britain, if the theatres, sporting venues and live events are all gone?
We should not underestimate the damage that closing down our entertainment industry will do to Britain. The West End, our national sporting scene, our cultural brilliance as a nation, are what make London a global city and attract everybody form tourists to students to businessmen to our shores. So get this wrong, and we are doing the whole country serious harm.
Fortunately, a man with a plan has appeared. His solution is not only good for these industries – in fact lifesaving –but also offers hope for the government’s test, and trace programme, at a time when it is in danger of faltering, as the public hesitate to sign up. Testing capacity has grown remarkably, but the actual rate of testing continues to lag well behind capacity.
In outlining his ambitious Full Capacity Plan, Melvin Benn, managing director of Festival Republic, explicitly links attendance at his events (most of Britain’s music festivals) with compulsory Coronavirus testing.
Put simply, a negative Covid-19 test would be the key to getting you into a show. At the moment, if you’re not showing coronavirus symptoms you don’t usually get a test, so government guidelines would have to change to enable his plan. Or perhaps more usefully, the Government could open up testing to the private sector more effectively than it has so far, emulating countries that have actually made a success of testing, tracking and tracing.
Under this plan, everybody attending an event will have been tested for Covid-19 within a limited number of days before the event, whatever length of time the government determines is safest. The most obvious objection is that tests don’t always pick up the virus in its early stages. There’s also a window between someone being tested and actually going to the festival. They could pick the virus up then as well.
So what is his plan? Music festivals take place between May and September each year, so we have probably lost an entire year’s live music and festivals. The plan to get festivals (and other entertainment and sporting events) up and running again involves:
- Customers who want to book an event being advised to get a test and download the NHS trace app.
- The test is registered with the app, so you can continue with your booking.
- If the test comes back negative, the app notifies you and that allows you to attend the event.
- You show your app and ticket at the event which allows you entry, subject to an on-the-spot temperature test.
- Enhanced hygiene measures would be introduced and enforced.
All of this works with the grain of government thinking on everything except social distancing, which it is designed to replace. Working in partnership with the Government, such an approach would allow the public to access to the entertainment and leisure sectors and create a personal incentive for the public to be tested and traced. This is a genuine alternative to social distancing.
Consider, for a moment, the alternative. Already, in the warm weather we saw people – especially young people – flouting the ban on social distancing in parks and on beaches. If we really are going to persist in a policy which wipes out all their opportunities for amusement, they will devise alternatives – and those won’t involve social distancing, but may well be risky and anti-social.
Instead of properly organised festivals, we will see a rash of illegal raves, with all the misery and mess they bring rural areas. As famous football and rugby venues moulder, angry crowds will look for other forms of amusement. As we have seen already this could lead to serious increases in infection rates, and maybe another lockdown.
Benn’s plan aims to stimulate the debate about getting back to normal opening rather than partial opening because partial opening is ‘financial disaster opening’. It is simple and easy, inexpensive in comparison to the subsidies that the government is currently paying and very achievable with the organisation that good companies can deliver.
It is not the only thing we should be doing, of course. There are a range of matters we need to fix, from looking after the host of self-employed artists and entertainers who have slipped through the cracks of the furlough scheme, to ensuring that our insurance industry meets their obligations to theatreland. In summary, we need a plan for our world beating culture and sports, or we will lose it.
If the Government does not like this approach, it needs to come up with an alternative which is economically viable. The entertainment industries are a substantial part of the economy and our place in the world. Equally important, young people are barely at risk from the corona virus and don’t see it as their problem. If, on top of reduced employment prospects and damaged education, they see us ruining their fun, it will corrode respect for law and authority in general. We take that respect for granted at our peril.