What does Freedom Day mean for Theatres and Festivals?

The 19th July has been hailed as the end of a torrid 18 months for theatre owners and festival organisers. In a weekly statement, the PM Boris Johnson announced the end of all compulsory restrictions, including those around masks, safe-spacing and capacity limitations.

But what does this mean for organisers and box offices, and what changes need to be made?:

Firstly, what are the current restrictions on theatres and festivals?

Theatres have been open since step three of the UK’s roadmap, but with a stringent capacity limitation. These restrictions made many venues’ shows or exhibitions financially unfeasible; as Andrew Lloyd Webber pointed out – most major shows need around 70% to 80% of seats filled to break even. Cinema’s were also open with seat restrictions, but saw a severe decline in regular audience numbers. Some speculate that perhaps public confidence was shaken by the pandemic and need for restrictions.

For festivals and live music events; indoor and outdoor events can take place, but with social distancing between groups and limited attendance. The cap currently sits at 50% of a venue’s normal capacity, maxing out at 1000 people permitted indoors.

What are the new rules for theatres after July 19th?

The government announced there will be no limits at theatres. There will be no social distancing requirement or capacity limits as theatres can once again open with full stalls. Equally, attendees will not be required to be asked for verification of a negative test or a COVID vaccine passport. This move has been described as a “a lifeline for our industry, essential for the survival of theatres” by the chief executive to the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, Julian Bird.

What are the new rules for festivals after July 19th?

Festivals organisers will be able to open at usual capacity and will not be required to enforce safe-spacing or mask-wearing rules. Communal singing has now been given the go ahead as well as there being no legal requirement to check in using the NHS Covid app nor show any proof of a negative test or vaccine.

These changes come after the previous rules were deemed untenable by festival organisers. Most restrictions including social distancing were difficult if not impossible to enforce, and self-isolation rules were causing staffing issues at large events. This was partly due to the NHS tracing app, which many have resorted to deleting – a likely outcome explained Latitude festival founder Melvin Benn.

A continued struggle for Festivals and Theatres

These new freedoms (or old freedoms) which will be granted on July 19th, Freedom Day, cannot come soon enough. Live event organisers have been struggling for 18 months, battling with changing restrictions and updated rules, organising events only to be set back another few weeks or months. In response, the chief executive of the Association of Independent Festivals, Paul Reed, has called for a Government-backed insurance scheme. “Insurance remains the key obstacle to planning with confidence and there is no rationale for not implementing such a scheme if the Government’s road map is truly irreversible.”

There have been calls for the government to help prevent a lost summer by employing a one-time time-limited insurance scheme. It would be intended for festival organisers who have missed their chance to host an event this year. “Government-backed insurance is crucial to mitigating the Covid-19 related risks to festival organisers and enabling them to start planning” – stated MPs – Despite the huge economic and cultural contribution they make, few music festivals have benefited from government efforts. 

More recently, the government has said that from August 16th, those who are fully vaccinated will no longer have to self-isolate if they’ve been exposed to a COVID case. People will, however, still be obliged to self-isolate as before if they test positive for COVID. Government has outwardly expressed its view that soon society will rely more on personal responsibility and common sense.

What about the rest of the UK?

The changes intended for July 19th will only affect theatres, festivals and live events in England. Scotland’s government aims to lift all major restrictions by August 9th. Wales will continue to review their measures and Northern Ireland is set to relax freedoms on July 26th.

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