It is not just the hospitality industry that is facing chaos in this moment of not-lockdown. The cultural sector, especially the performing arts, is similarly afflicted by the message that – quite rightly – extreme caution should be observed when it comes to attending crowded indoor events. What’s wholly unfair, though, is that the workers in the live arts – everyone from electricians to wigmakers, actors to folk musicians, front-of-house personnel to opera singers – are, once again, left flailing. On the one hand, shows are being cancelled because of illness and self-isolation as, especially in London, the Omicron variant of Covid-19 surges. (It is easier, at the present time, to count which West End shows remain open rather than those that have been forced into pre-Christmas closure.) On the other hand, bookings are plummeting. The scale of this is severe. Before the pandemic, the turnover of the arts and creative sector was £9.8bn – which nearly halved in 2020. Up to October 2021, the industries recorded revenues of just £4.7bn. There was a lot riding on the usually lucrative winter season.
What this means on the ground is individuals having their work cancelled well into the new year: livelihoods are collapsing, again. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has announced a £30m top-up to the culture recovery fund. This is welcome, but it targets organisations in cashflow crisis, not individuals – and in the performing arts, 70% of the workforce are freelance. At the moment, there is no help for these people: the SEISS (self-employment income support scheme) was closed in September (and many cultural workers anyway found themselves ineligible under its frame of reference). The alternatives may be finding work outside the sector – or turning to universal credit.
At previous moments during this pandemic, Mr Sunak has engaged with workers’ representatives and the Trades Union Congress. There are no signs of such engagement at the present time. The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, has been all but silent, and it is highly improbable that she is regarded as a significant figure at the cabinet table. Lucy Powell, the recently appointed shadow culture secretary, is a more serious proposition, and she has been commendably swift to listen to those who work in the arts.
Wales and Scotland have announced limits on gatherings after Christmas. This is intensely difficult for the performing arts, but at least allows for producers to plan. No such clarity exists in England. Post-Christmas restrictions are hinted at, but so far not confirmed. Clarity is a tough thing to wish for in the throes of a highly unpredictable pandemic. But if one thing has been predictable over the past 20 months, it has been precisely that: unpredictability. What is needed is a regularised means to carry workers through brief, acute phases of difficulty.
Mr Sunak should be formulating a permanent short-time work scheme – something like the German Kurzarbeit, or the French scheme for les intermittents du spectacle (intermittent workers in the performing arts) – through which workers, including freelancers, may be supported through times of economic turbulence. The TUC published a sensible report into the idea in August. Such a programme would not just be beneficial to individuals, but would help businesses and organisations retain valuable workers. Talented, highly skilled people should not be facing the terror of the cliff edge every time a fresh variant of the virus threatens the route out of the pandemic.