Edinburgh's Christmas festival cancelled over crowd safety fears

Edinburgh has pulled the plug on its money-spinning Christmas festival in the face of growing concern over large crowds flocking to market stalls and fairground rides in the city centre.

By Brian Ferguson
Thursday, 1st October 2020, 12:51 pm
Updated Friday, 2nd October 2020, 12:43 pm
More than 2.6 million people flocked to the Christmas attractions in Princes Street Gardens last year. Picture: Tim Edgeler
More than 2.6 million people flocked to the Christmas attractions in Princes Street Gardens last year. Picture: Tim Edgeler

All events involving large gatherings have been banned in the city in the run-up to Christmas, following crunch talks held in response to the introduction of new lockdown restrictions across Scotland.

The move, announced today by the city council, will be a huge blow to city centre retailers and other businesses struggling to survive the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 2.6 million people flocked to the main site in East Princes Street Gardens last year and the festivities are said to have generated more than £110m for the economy in recent years.

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An official announcement from the local authority said it had become clear that “the best place to experience Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay will be from home.”

However council leader Adam McVey insisted that the city would be running an online campaign to support businesses which are open over the festive season.

Organisers Underbelly had spent months working on plans for an alternative lay-out for attractions in the city centre to allow the events to go ahead with social distancing and track and trace measures in place. It is still working on an alternative way to mark the arrival of the 2021 in Edinburgh following the official cancellation of the Hogmanay street party and fireworks in July.

Councillors voted to go ahead with the new-look Christmas festival in August, which would have seen market stalls moved out of part of East Princes Street Gardens, and attractions expanded to Royal Mile and George Street, where the city’s famous ice rink was also due to return.

Cllr McVey said: “As we’ve continued to adapt to the changing circumstances presented by the pandemic, we’ve continued to work with our partners to develop potential plans for events, which could meet public health guidance, to mark the end of what has been one of the most challenging years in living memory.

“However, as we’ve maintained throughout, our utmost responsibility is to keep our residents safe. Following the latest restrictions and through the development of plans, it became apparent that activities for Christmas were not going to be possible.

"Whilst we understand the absence of popular events will bring some disappointment, we want to be clear that Edinburgh’s Christmas isn’t cancelled and our businesses right across the city will be offering their usual festive cheer for us to take advantage of.

"We look forward to announcing details of an innovative digital 2020 programme soon to help in these celebrations.”

Edinburgh's Christmas festival has been running for more than 20 years.

Underbelly director Charlie Wood said: “We very much wanted to bring some festive cheer and light to Edinburgh this Christmas and to support local makers and producers, at the end of what has been a challenging year for everyone.

“Public health is our absolute number one priority, and with the ongoing uncertainty concerning Covid-19 and the possibility of further restrictions, we have taken the collective and very sad decision with the Council, NHS Lothian and the Scottish Government not to proceed with this year’s Edinburgh’s Christmas sites in the city centre.

"We appreciate today’s announcement will be disappointing to the many people, particularly families, who come each year to enjoy the Christmas sites, but we are exploring a different Edinburgh’s Christmas this year which will deliver a series of digital opportunities for residents and visitors to enjoy from their own homes.

“We announced back in July that the Hogmanay street party would not be taking place this year. Since then, we’ve been developing plans to mark New Year in the home of Hogmanay, and to help Scotland celebrate with a sense of hope and new beginnings. We’ll be making further announcements in the coming weeks.”

Business leaders said the cancellation of the Christmas festival was another hammer blow for the city centre in the wake of the city’s major summer festivals being called off and official Scottish Government advice to companies to allow staff to work from home if possible.

Garry Clark, development manager at the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “The cancellation of Edinburgh’s Christmas festival is not unexpected, given the continued prevalence of the coronavirus, but it is nonetheless very disappointing news.

"We were already braced for the lack of visitors from the rest of the UK and overseas, but the Christmas festival brought people from in and around Edinburgh to the city centre and this draw will now be absent.

“Many Edinburgh businesses have had a very torrid year already with the cancellation of the summer festivals and the continued absence of thousands of office workers from the city centre.

"Covid-19 has had a negative effect on many businesses but here in Edinburgh, the situation has been magnified.

“On top of this, we have had to deal with the road closures and removal of parking spaces implemented by the council under its ‘Spaces for People’ initiative.

"Many businesses have reported a drop in trade which they partly attribute to these measures, not helped by the fact that consultation with business on these changes has been extremely limited.

“As we face the prospect of a Christmas without Edinburgh’s traditional festivities, it’s time for the council to demonstrate that it’s behind our local businesses by making it easier than ever to access and get around the city and its businesses.

"Edinburgh’s small businesses need the support of the council and the people of Edinburgh now more than ever.”

Roddy Smith, chief executive of city centre business group Essential Edinburgh, said: “We share everyone’s disappointment with the cancellation of Edinburgh’s Christmas events.

"At a time of global pandemic, the health and welfare of the population must always come first.

"Although this was an inevitable and correct decision, it is a further blow to our city centre retailers and hospitality businesses who have already suffered hugely over the majority of this year.

"Safety is their paramount concern and our businesses have worked wonders to put in place protocols and procedures to allow them to operate effectively during the pandemic.

"During the festive period Essential Edinburgh will work with partners to put in place measures to ensure the city has a magical, festive and exciting Christmassy feel, and will be a welcoming and safe environment.

“Obviously we don’t want to generate events that lots of people will congregate together at so the intention will be to make the city centre very attractive and feeling as festive as we possibly can within the restrictions that are rightly there.

“Although the main Christmas events will not happen in 2020, the city centre will be ready to welcome residents and visitors in a safe and controlled manner.

"You cannot replace over two million people and over £110 million of spending without Edinburgh’s Christmas activity, but you can make the city look attractive, welcoming and above all ensure that it is a very safe place to visit, shop, eat and drink.

"After six months of the pandemic, the city centre business community needs all the support it can and it must operate safely and be an attractive place to visit for everyone. The businesses have done an amazing job in meeting the standards they must for COVID security and they need our residents and visitors to return – I don’t think we can state how crucial this trading period will be.”

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