Concerts and festivals will not go ahead in the UK until at least next year, a top virologist warns.
Many major music, film and comedy events, like Glastonbury, Eurovision, Cannes and Edinburgh Fringe, have already been scrapped, postponed or moved online due to Covid-19 concerns.
But others, including Reading and Leeds, and the BFI London Film Festival, remain in the diary.
Dr Chris Smith believes it is “too optimistic” to think such social gatherings will take place.
“We won’t even have got a vaccine into people by then,” the Cambridge University lecturer tells the BBC.
“The government has cost the country billions to get the transmission rate right down, and we know that a very good catalyst for spreading the thing and amplifying cases is getting loads of people together again, and that’s exactly what goes on at concerts, matches, and other kinds of parties.
“So I can’t see them saying, ‘You know what, we think everyone needs a party’ – it’s too soon.”
Several UK promoters and venues still hoping to host events in some form told us they were unable to detail their post-lockdown plans yet, as they were waiting to take their lead from the government as to how and when they might safely proceed.
This weekend, Downing Street officials are expected to reveal plans to re-start the economy in stages, after the Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last week that the UK was past the peak of the outbreak.
The saving grace of when we might get to see our favourite artists in action again is unlikely to be high on their agenda, but a government spokeswoman told the BBC on Monday that it recognised these are “incredibly challenging times for art and entertainment venues”.
“We are supporting the sector through the substantial financial measures the government has announced and are continuing to work together to plan for the future,” she said.
“As soon as it is safe to do so, we will be encouraging everyone to visit and experience the UK’s fantastic cultural offerings again.”
Dr Smith, who also hosts the Naked Scientists podcast, is confident we will ultimately return to enjoying such collective experiences – as they “appeal to the human nature” – but only after most people in the country have either been infected with the disease (herd immunity), or inoculated (vaccines or combinations of drugs) in some way.
In “the near-term”, he says, “it’s just not going to happen.”
“I think this year is basically a write-off, if I’m honest with you,” he adds.
Theatre producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh declared this week that the West End and Broadway are unlikely to be able to stage musicals until early next year, and the Hay Literature Festival unveiled its first-ever digital programme in lieu of an actual event.
But the boss of one of the UK’s biggest cinema chains is optimistic the business can reopen in mid-July, noting it can “control how many people come into” the building.
Vue Cinemas’ chief executive Tim Richards told the BBC he is still talking to the authorities about social distancing measures. If all goes to plan, the chain could be back in business for the launch of director Christopher Nolan’s action movie Tenet on 17 July, he said.
The UK Cinema Association has reportedly asked the government “to allow cinemas to open by the end of June”.
‘Think with heads, not wallets’
Despite having sympathy for those in the dormant creative industries – many of which Dr Smith fears “won’t ever recover” from the “monumental impact” of coronavirus – he stresses entertainment figures now need to think “not with their wallet, but with their head screwed on,” to avoid “undoing all the great work that has been done” by the NHS.
He suggests it might be conceivable to reopen some art galleries and museums – where people can often move around more freely – using similar social distancing measures and restrictions to those seen at supermarkets.
However to do so, even intermittently at small gig venues, theatres and cinemas in selected towns and cities, would cause “carnage”, he predicts.
“How on earth would we ever have a system that was enforceable where you said, ‘You can go to a rock concert and watch Ed Sheeran but you’ve got to stand two metres apart?’ Everyone would just laugh,” he says.
“You’ve got to think about the bigger picture, which is how do most people get to and get into the venue [at the same time]? If you suddenly have to start telling people, ‘you can’t all go to the loo together,’ can you imagine the carnage?”
A campaign is well under way to save more than 550 UK music venues. Re-opening them, or picture houses, anytime soon with restrictions, Dr Smith believes, would cause further financial problems, as well as medical ones.
“In the short term, we’re going to have to rethink all this because it’s just not feasible to say, ‘let’s just translate this into different numbers’,” he adds. “Because the economics don’t work out for the artists and the venue holders, because those venues work at the capacity that they were built for.
“Who would spend a fortune buying the rights to show a film in their cinema if they don’t know that their cinema is going to be open next week and that they can actually make their money back?”
US bioethicist Dr Zeke Emanuel, from the University of Pennsylvania, who hosts the coronavirus podcast Making the Call, agrees that people will have to wait longer than they might think before attending big events again.
“Larger gatherings – conferences, concerts, sporting events – when people say they’re going to reschedule this conference or graduation event for October 2020, I have no idea how they think that’s a plausible possibility,” he told the New York Times last month.
“I think those things will be the last to return. Realistically we’re talking fall 2021 at the earliest.”
These sobering sentiments were echoed again by former Creation Records and current Creation23 label supremo Alan McGee on Boogaloo Radio on Monday, who said the government “are never going to allow 200 people to congregate [this year].”
“Also nobody is going to want to go to a show at the moment,” he went on.
Elsewhere, the Isle of Wight Festival boss John Giddings told the NME that cancelling their summer event was “tragic but a no-brainer”, and that he held little hope for gigs and festivals later in the year.
“Will artists, crews and customers even be able to travel?” he questioned.
What are other countries doing?
In answering these questions, the UK can at least learn lessons from other nations, some of whom are weeks/months ahead on their coronavirus timelines.
For instance, on Thursday, in the week that Germany reopened some museums, galleries and gardens with strict social distancing rules (including the use of face masks and in some cases, poles), France announced a bailout for culture workers that will also see similar steps from next week.
Neither country has decreed concert halls, cinemas or theatres to be safe zones yet, and president Emmanuel Macron indicated there would be no Gallic gatherings of more than 5,000 people until at least September.
Spain – where Primavera Sound Festival is still in the offing – plans to phase “cultural events” back in later this month, with venues at one-third capacity.
In the US, the New York and LA mayors have both said concerts and festivals were “difficult to imagine” until 2021. Missouri governor Mike Parson, however, has given the green light for concerts to begin again as early as Monday. And an Arkansas venue will make gig-goers sit in “fan pods” six feet apart at a show next week.
Oscar-winning director Spike Lee criticised the governor of Georgia’s plan to lift quarantine and re-open movie theatres. When China partially did so, after lockdown restrictions were lifted, it soon had to shut them down again, with the reason thought to be coronavirus-related.
Business is apparently booming, meanwhile, at the few drive-in cinemas that remain in the States, and Denmark has introduced drive-in concerts as a workaround.
Finally, in Sweden, a controversial Malmö venue has continued to put on socially-distanced shows, capped at audiences of 40, throughout the pandemic.
Once borders eventually begin to gradually open up, and testing becomes more readily available to the UK public, Dr Smith believes it may become necessary to prove one’s immunity in order to travel through international airports.
But he says it would be a “terrible idea” to start allowing just those who have immunity back into venues, as it could risk “coercing” people into deliberately catching the disease (as has happened, historically, with other viruses like chickenpox). The idea being they would take the risk so that they might become immune and then be able to go out and do things.
The practitioner says this would also be “impossible to police” at venues. And, of course, it’s still not certain if you become immune after contracting Covid-19.
While the situation is frighteningly complex, it’s not all doom and gloom for entertainment fans. The “new normal” for consuming stuff online, Dr Smith concludes, will bring such great technological advances, due to demand, that it will “make people more comfortable with having a night in” in the interim.
(The owner of Odeon Cinemas wasn’t too keen on that idea, banning all Universal films after the studio said it will release new movies at home and on the big screen on the same day).
Stufish, who have designed stages for U2, The Rolling Stones and Beyonce, for instance, are looking into how virtual reality could be used to tailor shows for socially-distanced audiences in the future.
“It might end up that some gigs are better for it,” says Dr Smith, “because you won’t be paying Wembley millions of pounds to use their venue and people can engage with you in a way where they will be able to see you.
“I’m very grateful we had technology at the stage we had before this happened, because I think it’s been our saviour.”