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26 May 2021updated 21 Jul 2021 1:23pm

Will festivals go ahead this summer?

Mass gatherings are due to be allowed again from 21 June, but without guaranteed insurance, festival organisers are in an uncertain position.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

According to the government’s Covid recovery roadmap, 21 June 2021 is the date when “all legal limits on social contact” will be removed, and the final closed sectors of the economy – including nightclubs – will reopen in the UK. It’s this date that organisers of music festivals are waiting for. After last year’s festival-less summer, the sector – which, together with the concert industry is worth an estimated £2.6bn – desperately needs to put on events in order to ensure its security into 2022.

Festivals including Reading and Leeds, Latitude and Green Man are planned to take place over the summer. But there is one major problem. Even if stage four of the roadmap goes ahead as planned, and there are no legal restrictions to festivals being held this summer, there is currently no guarantee that festivals will be able to secure Covid cancellation insurance. This means that in the event of a Covid-related cancellation (because of a last-minute local lockdown, for example), festivals have no guarantee of compensation for financial loss, leaving organisers in an incredibly uncertain position.

“The situation is that insurance simply doesn’t exist in the commercial market,” said Paul Reed, the chief executive of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), which has been lobbying the government to underwrite Covid cancellation insurance. The AIF has reported that 26 per cent of all festivals with a capacity greater than 5,000 have so far cancelled their 2021 offerings, and projects that 76 per cent of those yet to cancel will be called off imminently if the government doesn’t review insurance policies.

“It’s just too big a risk,” said James Scarlett, founder of 2,000 Trees and ArcTanGent, independent rock festivals held annually in Cheltenham and Bristol respectively. In April Scarlett announced the cancellation of 2,000 Trees, which was due to run in July, and on 21 May he also cancelled ArcTanGent, which was planned for August. Without Covid-specific insurance, Scarlett explained, he could be at one of his festival sites, with 15,000 paying ticket-holders, plus artists, on-site production and tech staff, stewards and caterers, having paid more than half a million pounds in deposits, “and at that point Boris Johnson could call a press conference and say, ‘We’re locking everyone down,’ or, ‘Events of over 5,000 people are not allowed to take place.’ In that situation, we would have to refund all of our ticket-holders. Without insurance, we’d never get that money back. There would be a very big likelihood that we would go out of business.”

When questioned on the status of the government’s intervention regarding event insurance in a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee session on 13 May, the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said that he “cannot give full assurance until we get to the stage of announcing stage four of the roadmap”. In a further statement to the New Statesman, a DCMS spokesperson said: “We are aware of the wider concerns about securing indemnity cover for live events. We are exploring what further support may be required for when the sector reopens.” 

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But this support is “too late and too slow to help anyone”, said Scarlett. “It’s this sort of uncertainty that is terrible for events.” Unlike much of the economy, festivals have only a very limited window in which to generate income, and a typical event takes six to eight months to plan. Scarlett, having cancelled his festivals as a pre-emptive measure, said he finds the situation “frustrating”, but simply can’t afford to take the risk. “Any independents that are still hanging on without insurance, well, they’ve got a bigger appetite for risk than I have.”

One such festival organiser is Alex Trenchard, founder of Standon Calling, a boutique festival due to take place in Hertfordshire on 22-25 July. The festival received a grant in the second round of the Arts Council’s Culture Recovery Fund, “and our view is that the point of that grant is to spend it and put it through our supply chain”, Trenchard said. He has rearranged the usual timeline of his festival to push “sunk costs” – costs he can’t recover – as far back as possible, minimising the festival’s on-site build time to around two and a half weeks. But time is still tight. “Say we had to cancel two weeks out, due to a local spike: would the insurance be up and running by then? Probably not.” But Trenchard remains confident that, when the time is right, the government will support the festival sector: “I would hope that the government, having said that 21 June was going ahead, could potentially backdate insurance to cover those events that had been told they would go ahead.”

Whether or not Trenchard and his team would risk holding the festival if insurance does not come through is yet to be seen. He is working closely with the local public health authority, and is exploring pre-event testing and technology that risk-profiles audiences based on how many people have had one or two doses of a vaccine. These tools were recently trialled at a live event at Sefton Park, Liverpool, and there are plans for a camping festival trial in mid-June.

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Taking this risk makes sense for Trenchard. After having to cancel Standon Calling in 2020, and not having received a grant in the first round of the Culture Recovery Fund, he turned to his audience, who raised £95,000 through a crowdfunder. “We want to put on a show to thank our audience. That’s what they want, and ultimately it’s what we owe them. If that means accepting a bit more risk, then that’s what we’ve got to do. That’s why I will hold out a bit longer.”

There is certainly an appetite for audiences to return to live events. In a survey carried out among 25,000 UK music fans, AIF found that over 75 per cent were keen to get back to gigs and festivals. It is then infuriating for fans and festival owners alike that a lack of insurance is all that’s currently standing in the way. Without the safety net of insurance, Reed said, “you’re inevitably going to get a very selective summer. It isn’t going to be a festival season as it would usually be.”