The majority of summer festivals are unlikely to go ahead without more certainty from the government, despite the new lockdown-easing roadmap, a representative for the sector has told Sky News.
Paul Reed, chief executive of the Association of Independent Festivals, said that while the prime minister’s four-step COVID-19 rule-lifting plan is cause for some optimism, the costs and logistics involved in putting most festivals on are too great to leave decision-making until later in the year.
Festival organisers say they could find themselves in “big trouble” financially if they decide to go ahead only for restrictions to change.
Outdoor large performances with a maximum of 4,000 people will be allowed from 17 May as part of Step Three of the roadmap, but the majority of festivals are looking to Step Four, starting on 21 June at the earliest, when the government is hoping to remove all legal limits on social contact.
However, the route out of lockdown is dependent on coronavirus cases, deaths and hospital admissions continuing to fall. These will be constantly reviewed and a week’s notice will be given before full confirmation of each step.
Mr Reed told Sky News the average festival will need to make a decision on whether to go ahead by the end of March, and currently there is no COVID-19 insurance in existence to protect them.
“Time is running out,” he said. “We do need urgent intervention on insurance. We’re very appreciative to have a ‘no earlier than date’. But if festivals are to go ahead, we need that intervention before the end of March. If that doesn’t happen, unfortunately, you’re not going to see much of the festival sector this year and [it] will therefore need support until when we’re able to return beyond this.”
As part of the roadmap, the government has announced a research programme using pilot schemes involving testing and other measures to run events with larger crowd sizes. However, this does not start until April.
Glastonbury has already cancelled this year and it seems impossible that big festivals due to take place before 21 June, such as Isle of Wight and Download, can realistically go ahead, although no official announcements have yet been made.
AIF member festivals on average take six to eight months to plan, sometimes more, Mr Reed said, and the costs involved are huge – the average for an AIF member being £6m.
Organisers are hoping for an announcement on insurance in the Budget next week, with 90% of AIF members saying they cannot go ahead without it.
“Really, we’re only going to know if we can proceed with festivals, with larger scale festivals, on 14 June,” Mr Reed said. “For many of them, they may be able to delay their decision date by a little bit.
“But there are certain essential things that they will need to commit to paying for if their events are going ahead, not least things like medical provision, police services, essential things that will need to be in place. It’s not just about the artist deposits or the production costs.
“And frankly, that point in June will be when many festivals would be on site building their festivals, even if they take place in July or August, depending on the scale.
“There’s a large issue around insurance as well… We’ve been pressing for this for festivals and provided a lot of information and data to support that ask. There’s been a lot of conversations both with the DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) and the Treasury around such a scheme, but it’s not forthcoming and it’s not confirmed. And if it isn’t confirmed by the end of March, then the expectation is that organisers will press ahead and commit costs.
“It’s half a million pounds to put on a 5,000 capacity festival. You go right up to some of our larger members, which is 70,000 capacity, and it’s over £12m. So the issue is having to start committing that cost without any sort of insurance.
“I fear that if government don’t act on that before the end of March, then you’re still going to see widespread cancellations of festivals this year.”
Mr Reed says he is pleased the government’s research programme is looking at ways to deliver large-scale events without social distancing, as significant reductions in capacity leave many “logistically or economically not viable”.
The AIF has been working with the government to provide guidance for the industry, he said.
There is also the issue of having artists from overseas on festival bills, although Mr Reed said the feeling is that festival-goers will be happy to accept line-ups that are less international this year.
Oliver Jones, director of the 15,000-capacity Deer Shed Festival, due to take place in Topcliffe, North Yorkshire, at the end of July, told Sky News if insurance does not become available and they have to wait until mid-June for confirmation, they could potentially find themselves in “big trouble financially”.
“If we were to press go now on the full Deer Shed Festival, as advertised, we could get to the middle of June and have the whole thing cancelled,” he said. “The main issue with that is that there’s no commercially available cancellation insurance.”
Last year, Deer Shed ran a small, socially-distanced event – where campers got their own loos – which could be an option this year, Mr Jones said. Another option is to put on a 4,000 capacity event as per the Step Three rules, should they go to plan.
But the best option would be insurance.
“We are very hopeful that Rishi [Sunak] in the Budget will announce some kind of government support for slippage in the steps unlocking,” Mr Jones said.
Following the government’s announcement on Monday, Greg Parmley, chief executive of Live – a trade body for the live music industry – said the sector had found itself “at the back of the queue to reopen” and called for the Chancellor in the Budget to “provide the economic support needed to ensure the jobs and livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands of people that work in our industry exist as we come through this pandemic”.
Mark Davyd, chief executive of the Music Venue Trust – a charity which represents grassroots venues – also called for more support.
Sky News has contacted the DCMS for comment.