Edinburgh Festival: Prospect of a meaningful season is still within reach – Brian Ferguson

I’m never been brave, or stupid, enough to try it, but I’ve always wondered what it would be like trying to walk up an escalator going the wrong way.

Wednesday, 19th May 2021, 4:55 am
Updated Wednesday, 19th May 2021, 8:19 am

Trying to work out what shape the Edinburgh Festival is going to take this summer must be a similar feeling.

Every time it looks like progress is being made, another blow is delivered.

Despite UK news programmes reporting crowds flocking back to theatres in England, the entire Scottish events industry is still in limbo, waiting on Nicola Sturgeon to ease current restrictions which are said to make the vast majority of venues, shows and festival unviable.

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There are many confusing things about the treatment of live events in Scotland in recent months.

The Scottish and UK governments both agreed to allow bars and restaurants to open with one-metre distancing, rather than two, after the initial easing of restrictions last summer.

Event organisers in England were told back in February that they could plan ahead for the return live events on a half-capacity basis from this week.

The exact same date was given in Scotland in March, but when guidelines emerged at the end of April they included an insistence on two-metre distancing. A review has been promised in the wake of an avalanche of criticism, but the results will not be known until early June.

Edinburgh University's Old College Quadrangle has been lined up to host shows for the Edinburgh International Festival this year.

This saga has unfolded at a time when the UK appears to be making huge progress with the vaccine roll-out and other sectors of the economy have finally been able to reboot.

This time last week, Scots were getting used to the idea of looking forward to household gathering and even hugs with friends and relatives.

But concerns about the spread of the new India variant of Covid have forced Nicola Sturgeon to tighten rather than ease restrictions in Glasgow and forced Boris Johnson to backpedal on a pledge to lift distancing restrictions on 21 June.

If all this wasn’t baffling enough, in the last week alone I’ve reported on the Edinburgh Art Festival’s plans, the opening of a new year-round festival venue in Edinburgh, news on the first Fringe shows going on sale, predictions that the Scottish comedy industry is on the brink of collapse, and the cancellation of the Tattoo.

The Tattoo has been called off for the second year in a row.

Behind the scenes, a huge of amount of work is going on to get the city’s cultural events back up and running this year, in the most meaningful, but safest, possible way.

Against such an uncertain backdrop over current and future restrictions, it would appear to be a question of crossing fingers and a collective holding of nerve.

But the tantalising prospect of Edinburgh hosting an inspiring and joyous cultural celebration at the point when the country emerges from the shackles of Covid seems within reach.

The Edinburgh Festival has divided opinions in the city since its post-war origins in 1947. The prospect of its return while the world is in the grip of a pandemic does not appeal to everyone.

But many people in Edinburgh would relish the chance to watch live performances in some form this summer, just as they have already returned to their favourite pubs or restaurants.

Others will be running businesses which stand to benefit significantly should the festivals return.

Every effort should be made by the authorities to ensure they stand the best possible chance of happening.

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