Covid lockdown: Return of festival audiences in serious doubt amid warnings of months of restrictions – Brian Ferguson

A look back at my diary to this time last year is a sobering reminder of how much life has changed.

The Usher Hall is one of the main venues used for the Edinburgh International Festival. (Picture: Clark James)
The Usher Hall is one of the main venues used for the Edinburgh International Festival. (Picture: Clark James)

While much of the country was in hibernation mode after the festive period, I was packing my bags and gearing up for my usual three long weekends at the Celtic Connections music festival in Glasgow.

Memories of racing around the city, packing in concert after concert, hanging out at late-night festival clubs, annual catch-ups with work contacts and reunions with pals are all still there, but gradually drifting into the distance.

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The return of the event this week in online form is likely to trigger a strange mix of emotions, ranging from sadness at what is missing to joy and relief that bands and musicians have been reunited.

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Given the huge uncertainties event organisers and the music industry in particular have had to grapple with since they were forced to shut down last March, it is something of a miracle Celtic Connections has been able to put together a programme at all.

Yet it has managed to bring musicians back to most of the festival’s main venues for the broadcast of more than 30 different shows across its 19 days.

Although the crowds will be conspicuous by their absence, the festival is expected to gain a whole new audience around the world, with fans in 35 countries snapping up tickets.

How the event unfolds and is received is going to be fascinating, not least because it may be a glimpse into the future of events in Scotland this year – a future that may not involve live audiences.

We have now had four months of ever-tightening coronavirus restrictions in Scotland, which have made the task of trying to plan for the return or audiences increasingly difficult.

Celtic Connections planned for an event without live audiences – a move which has avoided a lot of wasted time and effort.

Other events have not been so fortunate, as demonstrated by two inevitable announcements in my inbox this week.

The Glasgow Film Festival, which planned to use the GFT for premieres and stage screenings in partnership with cinemas across the UK, is having to stage an online-only event now.

The Hebridean Dark Skies Festival had programmed a number of live events in the expectation of being able to go ahead with them in an area with one of the lowest infection rates in the UK.

Any event organisers optimistically hoping that the vaccine roll-out would see a revival by the summer were given a real reality check when Professor Devi Sridhar, one of Scotland’s leading public health experts, called for the current lockdown restrictions to remain in place for another 12 weeks.

She also wants to see a post-lockdown strategy in place to suppress the virus going into the summer – and raised the possibility of one-week lockdowns suddenly being put in place to curb further waves of the virus.

As if all this were not enough, the main Edinburgh festivals have joined a campaign to persuade the UK government to underwrite the soaring cost of insuring events later this year.

It is a depressing thought so early in the year, but I fear it could be longer than anyone anticipated before performances and audiences are reunited in real life.

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