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The Saturday View: How A Lack Of Data Caused A Wave Of Festival Cancellations

7 min read

As Glastonbury lays silent for a second year in a row this weekend, continuing uncertainty over remaining Covid restrictions, a lack of pandemic insurance, and the government's delayed release of data on mass event trials has triggered a brutal week for the UK’s festival industry.

Event organisers are blaming Downing Street for contributing to a wave of festival cancellations this summer, after refusing to publish the findings of the Events Research Programme (ERP) until yesterday, just weeks before many festivals were set to go ahead. 

The ERP is one of four reviews being conducted by government departments to inform Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown, and is meant to reveal if mass events like sports fixtures, concerts, theatre and festivals could restart in a safe way. 

It was understood the findings would be released ahead of step 4, but after the Prime Minister announced a four-week delay to the final easing of lockdown restrictions, nothing was published. 

Officials in the department were happy for the data to be released and shared the frustration of the sectors involved, but added the programme was always about getting the very best data and rigorously studying it, which takes time.

It was only after a legal challenge spearheaded by Andrew Lloyd-Webber was launched on Thursday, and some of the findings were leaked to Politico, that DCMS was “dragged kicking and screaming” to finally publish the data they’d so far been refusing to share with stakeholders. 

When the results of phase 1 of the programme were finally made public on Friday afternoon, it was confirmed that 28 cases of infection were linked to the 58,000 participants at indoor and outdoor venues across the country, including in Liverpool, Sheffield and London.

Of these, 11 were identified as "potentially infectious at an event" while a further 17 were "potentially infected at or around the time of an event". 

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said “the findings and learnings will help event organisers plan for large audiences as we move to step 4 of the road map." 

But because of the long lead times to organise big music events, 19 July, when step 4 of the roadmap is due to be rubber-stamped and events guidance will be updated, will be too late for many festival organisers to decide whether they can go ahead. 

One scientist who helped compile the report said it “helps get us an outbreak of joy rather than an outbreak of the virus”.

But festival organisers were not feeling much joy after its publication, one saying it simply “tells us what we already know”, and the report failed to give “clear guidance from government on exactly what the expectations are for festivals around testing regimes and other protocols this summer”.

Instead they now face a choice of ploughing on and taking a huge financial hit if new guidance doesn’t work for them, or cutting their losses and cancelling now.

“This week is essentially the go or not date for loads of festivals,” Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, chief executive of UK Music, said. 

On Monday the team behind Kent’s popular Black Deer festival said the delay to step four means they have to cancel this year’s event – the same day that Dowden revealed Wembley would soon be open for 60,000 football fans as part of ERP phase 3. 

That followed the “heart-breaking, infuriating” decision by Kendal Calling in the Lake District, and Oxford’s 25-year-old Truck festival followed the Noisily festival in Leicestershire cancelling for this year.

Beyond The Woods festival in Lincolnshire announced they had cancelled for the second consecutive year, citing a lack of available insurance, and the 25,000-capacity Splendour event in Nottingham also called it quits, citing the delay to the programme’s report as a “huge factor”.

Meanwhile Silverstone has announced they will be allowed 140,000 spectators for the British Grand Prix next month as part of the ERP. 

Both Green Man festival in Wales, and Y Not in Derbyshire are due to decide in the coming days if they can still go ahead, as are the people behind Standon Calling in Hertfordshire and Womad festival in Wiltshire.

Festival industry leaders say cancellations so far are just the tip of the iceberg, with dozens more at risk if they cannot get insurance or access to more safety data and updated opening guidance.

“Our summer season’s disappearing, it's July next week. Events are racked and stacked over the next couple of months, but soon we're going into the winter,” Susan Tanner, chief executive of the National Outdoor Events Association, said. “Pubs will still be operating, hairdressers, everything else is operating, but you've effectively cut us off at the knees.”

Njoku-Goodwin said the issues for festivals is “they don't know what conditions they are going to be operating under, they don't even know what the guidance is going to be, and then probably most importantly – none of them can get insurance.”

Organisers of Kendal Calling, who had long been crying out for more ERP data in order to avoid cancelling their event, believed the report had been buried because “it does not fit around Number 10’s communications plan”.

“This is insulting to our entire industry, who have been awaiting the results of a pilot event that took place almost two months ago to inform our approach to staging events safely this summer,” a spokesperson for the festival said.

Paul Reed, from the association of independent festivals, revealed more than half of UK festivals with a capacity of 5,000 and over have already cancelled their 2021 events, while the rest are waiting to see if the government will allow them to go ahead.

“I think, unfortunately, it does feel like we're at a tipping point,” he told PoliticsHome.

Reed said the delay in releasing the ERP data was “completely unacceptable” and also believed it had been withheld for “political reasons” as the government strives to justify the continued delay to the final easing of Covid restrictions. 

“It doesn't fit with the current narrative and optics,” he said. “Organisers desperately need that information to inform their decision making around assessing how to reopen.”

He added: “Unfortunately, I think we're at a point where the season could rapidly collapse before July 19, and there may not be much of the market left at all.”

Labour’s shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens has been a vocal advocate of festival organisers in recent weeks, but said many felt left in the dark by the government as they scrambled to save the remainder of the summer’s events. 

"Organisations have told me that a report with good results was produced by DCMS but they weren't allowed to see it,” Stevens said. 

They told me that Number 10 refused to allow the report to be published last week because it didn’t fit their communications grid.

Government insiders disagree, and say because there is some crossover between phase two and phase three of the pilots, with fixtures at Euro 2020 spanning both, that they needed to wait longer to publish the full learnings, and had always planned not to release data until this week.

Dowden had publicly indicated some of the report’s findings ahead of its release, confirming there had been just a handful of positive cases among thousands of attendees at the pilots. This week one of his junior ministers Nigel Huddleston also revealed that post-event data “have not shown any evidence of the events causing outbreaks”.

But these scant hints have had “the whole sector tearing its hair out”, says a music industry insider.

Stevens added that “without the accompanying guidance the sector is still in the dark, and they need that information now otherwise there will be further cancellations and a serious risk to businesses and jobs."

A DCMS spokesperson said they were “continuing to work flat out to support festivals”,  and that organisers had received more than £34million from the Culture Recovery Fund, with more financial support on the way.

They added: “We are aware of the wider concerns about securing indemnity cover and are exploring what further support may be required when the sector is able to reopen.”

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