LONDON — This summer could see the return of live gigs, packed nightclubs and outdoor music festivals in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Monday (Feb. 22), provided COVID-19 infection rates continue to fall and there is no let-up in the U.K.’s vaccination program.
Unveiling a four-step plan to ease England out of lockdown, the prime minister said Monday that limited capacity indoor music shows will be permitted from May 17 onwards — if a number of health provisions are met, including capacity restrictions and social distancing.
The U.K. is the first major music market in Europe to unveil a roadmap for its live sector to return to operation sometime this year. Like most countries around the world, the U.K.’s live industry ground to a halt last March as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and it has remained mothballed ever since. On Jan. 6, the country went into lockdown for a third time.
Under the new guidelines, promoters must set audience sizes at a maximum of 1,000 people or 50% of a venue’s capacity (whichever is lower) for select indoor events with up to 4,000 people, or 50% capacity for outdoor events. Large outdoor seated venues where crowds can be safely distributed will be allowed up to 10,000 people or 25% of total seated capacity.
The prime minister said the government could lift all social distancing restrictions in the U.K. from June 21, meaning the return of full-capacity concerts and outdoor shows, as well as the reopening of nightclubs and bars.
For that to happen, four key conditions around vaccinations, infection rates, hospital admissions and new variants of coronavirus need to be met, Johnson said.
He said the four-step proposals, which include the reopening of schools on March 8 and the reopening of shops and outdoor hospitality on April 12, were intended to be “cautious but irreversible” and would be led by “data, not dates.”
Reaction in the U.K. live industry was mixed. Executives welcomed some long-awaited clarity over when they are likely to be able to open again, but called for greater financial support to help businesses, crew members and technicians to survive until then.
Greg Parmley, CEO of newly formed U.K. music trade body LIVE, said the sector had “as predicted” been left “at the back of the queue to reopen.”
According to LIVE, the sector contributed £4.5 billion ($6.3 billion) to the U.K. economy in 2019 and supports 210,000 workers. It estimates revenues dropped by 81% last year.
“Any return to normality for live music could be months behind the rest of the economy,” Parmley said. He called for the establishment of a government-backed insurance scheme covering live shows, similar to what officials have introduced in Germany and Austria, to help mitigate risk for promoters, artists and venues.
David Martin, CEO of the Featured Artists Coalition, said the prime minister’s statement “offers some green shoots of hope for live music” but cautioned “there is some way to go before we return to pre-pandemic levels of activity.”
Similar hopes have been raised before, both in the U.K. and across Europe, only to quickly fade away. In July, a number of socially distanced pilot shows by artists like Frank Turner and Beverly Knight were held in London to explore how live music could safely return. Those plans were put on hold when infection rates and deaths began to rapidly rise across the U.K., resulting in local and national lockdowns.
Last fall, other major touring markets in Europe, including Germany, France and Spain, abandoned plans to return to live entertainment following a spike in COVID-19 cases. Among the casualties was a 12,000-capacity Live Nation-promoted “Return to Live” concert in Düsseldorf headlined by Bryan Adams, scheduled for Sept. 4.
The recent cancellation of the Glastonbury festival for a second year running deepened fears that live music would once again be off limits in 2021. But the success of the U.K.’s vaccination program has produced cautious optimism the sector can bounce back in the second half of the year.
To date, health officials have administered more than 17 million vaccination doses in the U.K. (about one-quarter of the population), with the government planning to offer the vaccine to everyone over the age of 18 by the end of July. The U.K. has the third-highest vaccination rate of any country in the world, behind only Israel and UAE.
“Live music events could be the shot in the arm that Britain needs as we look to bounce back from this pandemic,” said UK Music chief executive Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, welcoming the prime minister’s announcement.