Covid-19: Don’t leave Scottish culture at back of lockdown queue – Brian Ferguson

Beer gardens and pavement cafes could re-open next week, but some arts venues may not feel able to do so until next year, writes Brian Ferguson.

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and the Shore area of Edinburgh where I live is buzzing with activity. The eerily quiet streets of a month ago are now filled with crowds clutching plastic pint tumblers and ice cream cones. At nearby Leith Links, the grass is peppered with dozens of large groups tucking into picnics. Children are kicking footballs around and whizzing about on bikes like they don’t have a care in the world.

It all feels a world away from a few weeks ago when the streets were all but deserted, save for a few lonely joggers and cyclists, and sitting on a park bench for more than five minutes risked a talking to from a passing police officer. Yet the news bulletins are full of daily reminders of the economic devastation still being caused around the country by Covid-19. And up in town, the tourist-free city centre is still largely deserted, its historic cultural venues locked up for nearly three months now. It’s a similar picture across the country.

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In theory, this could all change within the month, when it is possible we may see bars and restaurants reopen their doors, along with hairdressers, gyms and hotels. Live events in front of limited audiences could be permitted in time for a rebirth of the Fringe in Edinburgh in August. Some of Glasgow’s music venues could reopen this summer, even if audiences have to be a fraction of their normal size. Museums and galleries could be welcoming back visitors within weeks, albeit with supermarket-style restrictions on numbers and access routes.

Even if some venues and events are given the green light next month, how viable will they be given the restrictions on how many people they will be able to get through their doors, and the costs of new health and safety measures?

If they are not able to do so under the business models they were operating under a few months ago, should they be given public funding to help get them, and at least some of their staff, back to work, given the vast majority are not run on a commercial basis?

It is perfectly understandable that events attracting large crowds are a non-starter just now. But it does seem bizarre that every culture venue in the country is closed when fast food outlets, off-licences, kebab shops, takeaway pizza outlets, garden centres and DIY stores are all open, and tennis and golf can be played.

Pubs which have taken advantage of the fact that they are allowed to serve takeaway drinks have been attracting huge throngs of merry revellers in Edinburgh, to the understandable consternation of local residents still under the impression that they were supposed to be following lockdown rules. The next stage of Scotland’s roadmap out of lockdown could see beer gardens and pavement cafes open up around the country by the end of next week. But it could be well into next year before some arts venues feel able to reopen – if they survive that long.

That seems downright wrong and this apparent disparity should be provoking a lot more public debate than it is at present. This is perhaps because the cultural sector is bereft of strong leadership or a united voice on how to handle the short, medium and long-term implications of Covid-19.

Yet the longer the arts is left in limbo, the more likely it is that long-standing venues and organisations will be missing when the country fully emerges from lockdown. I would suggest now is the time for artists and performers to find their voices and ensure that culture is not left at the back of the coronavirus queue when it comes to the priorities of politicians.

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