An open letter to Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Dear Madam Secretary

It’s been well aired that, as you take on one of the most wide-ranging briefs in UK government, the Media part of “Culture, Media and Sport” is likely to be foremost in your mind. But I strongly suggest that you turn your focus to the Culture area and take urgent action, particularly as regards live performance. Let me remind you that as far back as 2016, the performing arts industry was estimated to be worth £23 billion of Gross Value Added to the UK economy – that’s bigger than the automotive industry and bigger than farming. It’s not an industry that the government can afford to imperil.

The whole arts industry depends on a vibrant scene of artists performing live in front of enraptured audiences – whether in the concert halls and opera houses that our publication covers or the thousands of venues across the country, from the smallest folk or comedy clubs to West End and regional theatres to circus tents and outdoor rock festivals. If live music, comedy, circus and theatre go to the wall, the whole industry – recording and TV production included – will wither and eventually die.

Right now, the burning need isn’t for money, it’s for safety.

Live performance is staggering to its feet as it tentatively welcomes its first audiences since the lifting of regulations: one more punch to the head would knock it out. Of course, it fears the blow of another episode of lockdown and widespread event cancellations, but there’s another terror that keeps it awake at night: that audiences won’t return because they are not confident of attending an event without risking Covid-19 infection.

The UK government must now take two major steps to address both those risks: mandate that people attending large-scale events must show proof either of Covid vaccination status or of a recent test or natural immunity, and mandate that they wear masks unless there is a strong medical reason not to do so.

My colleague Mark Pullinger has written persuasively about half-full houses with audiences unchecked and largely unmasked. He has talked extensively to industry figures and it’s clear that unless given a mandate from government, venues and promoters will not impose rules themselves. It’s also clear that without those rules, a significant number of audience members will not wear masks and that as a result, a far greater number of people will stay away. There are other countries where the situation is very different: where masks and vaccination/test status are enforced, audiences are returning in large numbers and with confidence.

I am well aware of the many people, not least within your party’s ranks, who consider that any government mandate over mask-wearing or “a vaccine passport” is an affront to their liberty. To them, I would say this: being permitted to pursue one’s own pleasures without concern about their effect on others isn’t liberty, it’s selfishness. You are not free to drive through a red light because it endangers other road users. You are absolutely free to refuse a Covid-19 vaccine, but you should not then be free to expose others to the potentially Coronavirus-filled droplets in your breath – if that’s the way you feel, stay away from theatres and concert halls. And if you’re too selfish to do this of your own accord, expect your government to enforce it for you. For those unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons, I would ask the government to provide a robust, verifiable, free testing regime to enable them to attend events without endangering others.

I should note that I’m making no comment here about night clubs and hospitality venues. Their situation is different and demands separate analysis. 

Whatever level of value you place on the performing arts as a benefit in themselves, the United Kingdom cannot afford the economic hit of their demise. Whether it’s the sudden death of another lockdown or the death by a thousand cuts of timorous audience members staying away, the performing arts cannot afford your inaction. We need mask mandates and a health pass. Now.

Yours sincerely

David Karlin
Bachtrack Ltd