Vaccine passports for clubs: “The government is looking for an easy scapegoat with the nightlife industry”

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This week’s long-awaited “Freedom Day” in England saw ravers finally allowed back onto the nation’s dancefloors. But within hours, the government abruptly changed their door policies: vaccine passports, or NHS Covid Passes, will be mandatory from September to enter any club or music venue. If you’re not double jabbed, you’re not getting in.

Asking music venues and clubs to check customers’ vaccine status has been rumoured ever since the government announced its post-lockdown roadmap in February, but discussions have been plagued by indecision and mixed messaging. Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to be leaning towards vaccine passports in April, until The Telegraph reported a month later that the idea had been scrapped. William Wragg, a senior Tory MP and Chair of the Public Administration committee, derided them last week as “unenforceable”; Keir Starmer called them “un-British”. Clubs were allowed to reopen to the public without them on Monday, before Johnson announced that they would, in fact, be imposed after all. Backbench Tory MPs are already plotting to overturn those plans before they become law.

This ongoing political farce, and the absence of consistent guidance on what “reopening safely” means for venues, has inevitably led to diverging views within the music industry on the public health challenges of post-Covid clubbing. In June, the #SaveOurScene protest saw tens of thousands of ravers occupy central London to demand an end to all lockdown restrictions; their numbers including a vocal minority of Covid denialists and DJs who’d continued to play parties throughout the pandemic. While data from the government’s Event Research Programme has been undermined by a failure to insist on pre- and post-event testing, it’s also clear that infection rates from a trial nightclub event at Circus in Liverpool were dramatically higher than for other events in the programme, like football matches or outdoor gigs. Artists such as Sherelle have urged caution. “Please don’t lose sight of the fact that cases are still going up,” she wrote, reminding her followers that reopening has been permitted by the same government that “allowed 120,000+ people to die”.

Michael Kill, CEO of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), has spent the last 18 months lobbying for venues, promoters and artists who’ve been left on the brink of collapse by Covid restrictions and insufficient government support. For him, this latest U-turn feels like a slap in the face. “We feel marginalised and somewhat used as a carrot to encourage people to become vaccinated,” he says. “What will sadly transpire is that many people will refuse to comply, which will force much of the scene underground.”

“There have been some discussions about different types of mitigations being introduced in the autumn and winter,” he continues, “but we were blindsided by the immediacy of the announcement. It’s going to be hugely challenging. Interpreting the government’s guidance has been one of the single biggest issues we’ve faced, with operators trying to work through a minefield of policies which ‘should’ be ‘encouraged’ but aren’t mandatory.”

These concerns are echoed by Harkirit Boparai, who manages the Crescent Community Venue in York, and helps run the city’s Music Venue Network. “We’d heard a few months back that the government had been thinking about some kind of certification,” he explains, “and their Events Research Programme was in fact designed to assess such measures, but that programme included proof of a negative test, rather than being double vaccinated. When the government confirmed the reopening date and advised venues and clubs to use certification, albeit without enforcing it, there was zero guidance released on how this system might work, despite it needing to be in place within a matter of days.”

Boparai has several questions about how any certification will work, particularly for community spaces like Crescent, which run a range of events – from late-night dancing to theatre performances. “Will we require passports only when we do club shows, but not for live, theatre or community events? Will we require passports to enter the concert room, but not the front bar?” he asks. “Many venues are now multi-purpose and don’t fit into traditional brackets of nightclub, grassroots music venue, pub and so on. We’ve repeatedly seen those definitions being left to local council officers, who have little understanding of their nuances.”

“There’s always been a moral panic around nightlife, this sense that night-time cultures are more dangerous than a football match”

Digging deeper, Boparai raises wider points about what these new restrictions might mean politically, not just practically. He highlights particular concerns about their potential impact on communities of colour, who’ve been disproportionately affected by Covid. Deep-rooted issues such as marginalisation and discrimination in the healthcare sector have contributed to varying levels of vaccine hesitancy. Boparai is concerned that additional requirements for vaccine certificates could “serve to push those on the fringes of society further away from valuable cultural experiences that bring communities together, and solidify opposition to getting vaccinated from those who were already hesitant”.

“The government is looking for an easy scapegoat with the nightlife industry,” he argues. “They’ve paid lip service to the cultural value of nightlife, whilst at the same time imposing the harshest restrictions on it. We’re now in a situation where venues are being forced to open and do as much trade as possible. We’re financially and contractually obliged to do many of our shows at full capacity, and there’s a widespread view that we’ll inevitably be blamed should further restrictions have to be imposed.”

In this, the government’s ham-fisted approach to the issue of vaccine passports reflects their wider treatment of the creative industries, and dance music in particular, throughout the pandemic: cultures rooted in young or diverse audiences which have been misunderstood and maligned for decades, now dumped repeatedly at the back of the queue for pandemic support.

Creative businesses were left without financial assistance for months as Covid first took hold, while Rishi Sunak was funnelling billions of pounds into the restaurant industry via the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. The government’s mishandling of the Delta variant meant that music venues had to tear up their reopening plans in June – unless you were Andrew Lloyd Webber, a former Tory peer who was offered a pilot scheme to launch his theatre production of Cinderella. The return of capacity crowds to Wembley for the final of the Euros triggered mass public disorder, leading to a total of 86 arrests, while the reopening of clubs across the UK passed without major incident. It feels perverse to look at all of this, and conclude that nightclubs are the only spaces which demand further restrictions, rather than support.

“It's frustrating, it's disappointing. It feels like we're being scapegoated. But we’ll work with it. Our sector is incredibly resilient”

Carly Heath is the Night Time Economy Advisor for Bristol. She shares many of Boparai’s and Kill’s frustrations, but is confident about dance music’s ability to weather yet another in an ongoing procession of setbacks from the government.

“There’s always been a moral panic around nightlife, this sense that night-time cultures are more dangerous than a football match,” she says. “I don’t think that’s changed during Covid, so ideologically this doesn’t feel like a great surprise. But in other countries, health mitigations have been extended to the whole of the night-time economy, so it feels very unfair that nightclubs are being disproportionately penalised.”

“In terms of the practical impact, it’s going to be on the door,” she explains. “But bouncers are used to checking for ID, checking bags. This is just an additional check that now needs to happen at the beginning of the night. What’s frustrating, though, is that this is happening when we’ve got a nationwide shortage of security staff. We’re down 60,000 people across the whole country.”

Despite this, Heath believes that the problems are surmountable. “In Bristol we were actually a bit ahead of the game. Clubs were working on the assumption that something like this would come in, and felt that if they opened with Covid policies in place, that’s easier than implementing them two months down the line. So when clubs reopened here, about 70 percent of them were asking for some sort of Covid information anyway.”

“We’ve just been through the most destructive years in nightlife’s history,” she adds. “And it’s frustrating, it’s disappointing. It feels like we’re being scapegoated. But we’ll work with it. Our sector is incredibly resilient. Promoters, venue owners and staff have become so used to changing things over the past 18 months, this is just another thing they need to bring into their events. And if that’s what we need to do to remain open, then that’s what we’ll do.”

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