Edinburgh Festival Fringe chief hits out at delays over easing of restrictions

Organisers of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe have hit out after the Scottish Government delayed a decision on lifting controversial curbs on live events.

Tuesday, 15th June 2021, 6:19 pm
Updated Wednesday, 16th June 2021, 2:16 pm
Shona McCarthy is chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy said it was “hugely disappointing” that there was still no clear guidance on how the event can go ahead this year.

Scottish cultural venues and event organisers have been promised that a long-awaited review of strict social distancing rules will be revealed within days.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggested that current curbs affecting theatres and other arts venues would be addressed next week in when plans for the future easing of “all, or virtually all” restrictions are set out.

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Edinburgh's Old Town is normally thronged with visitors during the Fringe. Picture: Jon Savage

She said the findings of the restrictions review would “not be exclusively of interest to the arts and cultural sector, but will be of particular interest.”

However Ms McCarthy said cultural events due to take place in August needed an immediate green light to operate with one metre distancing, warning the government that the current impasse was at risk of “harming this much-loved festival irreparably.”

Ms Sturgeon has also pledged to look at tackling “perceived anomalies” with the current restrictions, which are much tighter for live events than for bars and restaurants.

And she has raised the prospect of a wider easing of restrictions by late July under a revamped route map out of lockdown.

The Festival Theatre in Edinburgh is among the venues planning to reopen over the summer. Picture: Ryan Buchanan

Under the current guidelines, all event organisers must enforce two metre social distancing, compared to one metre distancing in hospitality businesses.

The rules in Scotland are also much tougher than in England, where venues are allowed to operate at half-capacity.

The First Minister said although it was now “unlikely” that any parts of the country would be moved down a level until 19 July, but said “minor changes” to the current rules may be possible before then.

She added: “I’m aware that - as restrictions have eased - perceived anomalies have arisen, and I understand how frustrating that can be, even though there will be a rational explanation for what may appear to be contradictory.

"And so I can assure you that - as part of our ongoing review of the rules, - we will consider whether any changes should be made to address such

issues.

"More fundamentally, though, we will publish two pieces of work next week that look ahead - hopefully not too far ahead - to the restoration of a much greater degree of normality.

"This work will be of interest to everyone - but it will have particular significance for the businesses and sectors, including much of our arts and culture sector, that still face the greatest uncertainty.

“Firstly, we’ll publish a paper setting out what we hope life will look like beyond level 0 - as we get to the point where we can lift all, or virtually all, remaining restrictions.

“This is important because, while we have had to pause the route map, we do still hope that vaccination will allow us, over the summer, to move beyond level 0 and back to a much greater degree of normality.

"And secondly, related to the first, we will publish the outcome of our review of physical distancing.

"I know how important this is for many businesses - in hospitality, certainly, but also for theatres and cinemas and the arts more generally - as they consider how they can operate sustainably over the medium to long term.”

However Ms McCarthy said: “We appreciate the need for a considered and careful approach to reopening and have been consistent and compliant in our support of prioritising public safety throughout the pandemic.

"However, with the Fringe just weeks away, it’s hugely disappointing to see that the culture sector – unlike the hospitality sector - still has no clear indication or guidance on what will be possible, particularly in relation to social distancing.

"We are strongly calling on the government to treat the culture sector in the same way as hospitality.

“We have clear and detailed covid mitigation plans ready to go, and we see venues opening safely and confidently in the south. We need guidance on what cultural events can look like in August, and a greenlight for events to operate with one metre distancing, as bars and restaurants are currently able to do.

“Unlike other festivals, the Fringe does not benefit from significant public investment. Everyone participates at their own risk, and the expectation is that it should trade its way to recovery. But the lack of parity on distancing and absence of clarity on the guidance is making trading all but impossible.

“We are not seeking special treatment. But parity with the easing of restrictions for other sectors is essential right now for all Fringe artists and operators to enable any activity to take place.

“The Fringe is a world-leading cultural asset for Scotland and at the moment it’s falling through the cracks – both in terms of guidance and material support.

"We’re urging the Scottish Government to give us clarity as a matter of urgency, otherwise we’re in real danger of harming this much-loved festival irreparably.”

Geoff Ellis, chief executive of DF Concerts, who are due to stage a series of open-air concerts in Edinburgh in August and the TRNSMT festival in Glasgow in September, said: “It feels like we have been kicked further into the long grass for a decision later whilst England has just had it’s metaphorical second jab in the arm as far as events are concerned.

"Whilst England have understandably delayed for a month, they still have a date, which seems pretty fixed now, which gives confidence and hope to English businesses and fans - like they also had four months ago - which allows people to plan accordingly .

“I’m worried that we will now have yet another month of Scottish fans buying tickets for English events when in reality Scotland is likely to open up at a very similar time to England so why not actually say that and allow the plethora of Scottish events large and small that are desperately awaiting decisions from the Scottish Government to flourish rather than floundering behind their English counterparts?”