The Guardian’s Perspective on the Arts of Covid: There is a Solution | Editorial
IIt’s not just the hospitality industry that is facing chaos at this time of non-containment. The cultural sector, especially the performing arts, is also touched by the message that – and rightly so – extreme caution should be observed when it comes to attending crowded indoor events. What is totally unfair, however, is that performing arts workers – everyone from electricians to wigmakers, actors to folk musicians, from hall staff to opera singers – are, once again , abandoned. On the one hand, shows are being canceled due to illness and self-isolation because, especially in London, the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is on the rise. (It’s easier, right now, to count which West End shows are staying open rather than which were forced to close before Christmas.) On the other hand, bookings are plummeting. The magnitude of this is severe. Before the pandemic, the arts and creative sector’s turnover was £ 9.8 billion – which was almost halved in 2020. Until October 2021, the industries recorded revenues of only 4.7 billion pounds sterling. There was plenty to do during the usually lucrative winter season.
What that means on the ground are individuals whose jobs are canceled until late in the new year: livelihoods crumble again. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a further £ 30million to the Culture Stimulus Fund. That’s welcome, but it targets organizations in cash flow crunch, not individuals – and in the performing arts, 70% of the workforce is independent. For the moment, there is no help for these people: the SEISS (income support scheme for the self-employed) was closed in September (and many cultural workers were anyway ineligible in its frame of reference. ). The alternatives may be to find work outside the sector – or to turn to universal credit.
During the earlier moments of this pandemic, Mr. Sunak engaged with workers’ representatives and the Trade Union Congress. There is no sign of such a commitment at this time. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has remained almost silent, and it is highly unlikely that she will be considered an important figure at the cabinet table. Lucy Powell, the recently appointed shadow culture secretary, is a more serious proposition, and she has been remarkably quick to listen to those who work in the arts.
Wales and Scotland have announced limits on rallies after Christmas. It’s extremely difficult for the performing arts, but it at least allows producers to plan. Such clarity does not exist in England. Post-Christmas restrictions are mentioned, but so far not confirmed. Clarity is a hard 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 is precisely that: unpredictability. What is needed is a regularized means of getting workers through brief and acute phases of difficulty.
Mr Sunak should develop a permanent partial unemployment scheme – something like the German scheme Kurzarbeit, or the French regime of the intermittents of the show (intermittent workers in the performing arts) – through which workers, including the self-employed, can be supported in times of economic turbulence. The TUC published a thoughtful report on the idea in August. Such a program would not only benefit individuals, but would help businesses and organizations retain valuable workers. Talented and highly skilled people should not be faced with cliff edge terror every time a new variant of the virus threatens the exit from the pandemic.