Electric Picnic 2021: Staging a Covid-free festival is possible. Insuring it mightn’t be

Hugh Linehan: Pilot events in UK are promising but will Government underwrite the risk?

Electric Picnic in 2018: Confidence is growing that a return to such live events  is imminent. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Electric Picnic in 2018: Confidence is growing that a return to such live events is imminent. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

Looking forward to Electric Picnic this year? According to Melvin Benn of Festival Republic, which runs the annual end-of-summer festival in Stradbally, Co Laois, you should get your fashion wellies, body sparkle and denim hotpants out of the attic, because he’s very confident that this year’s picnic can take place as scheduled over the weekend of September 3rd - 5th.

“Ireland is about four or five weeks behind the UK in terms of planning,” Benn told RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland on Tuesday. “I can see no reason why the Irish Government wouldn’t be saying ‘you can be back to normal by August’.”

Some readers may recall Benn’s powers of prediction proved less than perfect in March 2020, when he predicted that we’d “all be over the hump” of Covid by that June. But he’s on much firmer ground this year, as one of the organisers of a high-profile open-air gig in Liverpool’s Sefton Park on May 2nd attended by 5,000 people.

That concert was a joint venture with the UK government to test the feasibility of running large-scale public events safely. All attendees had a rapid lateral flow test at “an approved NHS [National Health Service] test centre, and that was uploaded on to the NHS platform”, Benn said. “That gave them the green light that they were Covid-free and allowed them through a soft-entrance, soft-ticket check to come into the event, and their ticket was valid then. They were all retested five days afterwards, and the results look really positive at this point.”

Confidence is swelling that Ireland’s vaccine programme will be delivered largely on schedule, and evidence mounting from other countries that this will mean a swift, dramatic reduction in the risk profile of Covid. The entertainment and culture industries are not surprisingly calling for more meat to be put on the bones of the Government’s still skimpy reopening plan for the sector.

Evolution in thinking

Minister for Culture Catherine Martin has signalled her desire to be more ambitious than the Government framework announced a few weeks ago in April, which envisaged a limited return of live events in July. “I’d like to see some live music events – test events – take place in June,” Martin said this week. “I’m determined to make that happen as soon as possible.”

It looks as if an evolution in thinking is under way among political and medical authorities that could see both cinemas and theatres open by mid-June and large-scale, open-air events – musical, cultural and sporting – taking place before the end of July.

That’s good news for the many people employed in those areas who have been unable to work for the past 14 months, not to mention all the rest of us who would dearly love to go to a concert or a play or a movie again.

The logistics are not simple. Each artform has its own set of complexities. An opera production requires years of co-ordination, a stand-up comedy gig not so much. State-supported theatres and festivals can plan events on the basis of quite small, socially distanced audiences, then scale up those numbers if regulations are relaxed. Commercial producers and venues don’t have that safety net.

Art of persuasion

It’s one thing to paint a persuasive picture of what the scenario is likely to be in August but it’s quite another to actually persuade investors or insurers to take a risk that you’re right. As Benn told Virgin Media TV’s Tonight Show on Thursday, the main problem is not ensuring everyone at a festival is Covid-clear. “The bigger challenge is getting Government to underwrite an insurance policy, because we’ve worked very hard to get the insurance market to provide that policy and they’re not doing so. It will be a significant test of the Government’s resolve to effectively put the country back to work.”

Meanwhile, Denis Desmond, the country’s biggest music promoter, confirmed the unsurprising news that Longitude, due to take place in Dublin’s Marlay Park in early July, had been cancelled, but still held out hope for two sold-out Westlife concerts at Cork’s Páirc Uí Chaoimh, in Cork in August. “That would be my target,” he said.

As Benn’s comments indicate, events in the UK will likely influence what happens (with a timelag) in Ireland. Brexit or no Brexit, the two countries' live entertainment and film distribution circuits remain closely entwined. Cinemas reopen in England and Scotland on Monday, and in Northern Ireland a week later. UK festivals such as Latitude look set to take place as planned in July, with negative Covid tests required for entry.

Given that even chief medicalofficer Tony Holohan declined to rule it out this week, a return to Stradbally looks plausibly on the cards.

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