Live Events and Weddings: Covid-19 Support — [James Gray in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:03 pm on 9th November 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 6:03 pm, 9th November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petitions 329339 and 332789, relating to support for live events and weddings during covid-19.

E-petition 329339 relates to the number of guests permitted at weddings during the coronavirus pandemic, and e-petition 332789 relates to support for nightclubs, festivals and the live events industry. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who are in Westminster Hall for this Petitions Committee debate this afternoon.

I will turn first to the petition on weddings. This is particularly important to me, because I myself have had to postpone my wedding that I was supposed to have in July, but before I go on to lament that, it is important to know exactly what we are debating this afternoon. Just over 110,000 people have signed this petition so far, including 150 of my own constituents in Carshalton and Wallington, and the prayer of the petition states the following:

“Weddings take months and even years of intricate planning. Myself and many others believe the maximum number of guests authorised at wedding ceremonies should be increased. The number of guests permitted at weddings should be calculated according to venue capacity.

For instance, if a venue has a capacity of 600 people social distancing could still be practised with 1/5 of this number. People should not have to alter their plans if social distancing is observed. Surely, if beaches are allowed to remain open, weddings should be permitted to go ahead considering appropriate measures are put in place. It is more than apparent social distancing is not practised at such public places of leisure, thus guidelines for weddings should be reconsidered.”

As the Government outlined in their response, before we entered into a second national lockdown, weddings could take place, but numbers were restricted to 15 or 30 people. Sadly, once again, weddings are now restricted to deathbed weddings. I have heard worrying testimony from Professor Sandberg from Cardiff University, who pointed Some areas insist that deathbed weddings can take place only in a hospital setting, which has denied some couples in really tragic circumstances the ability to tie the knot. I would be glad if the Minister takes that point away.

I understand some of the arguments that have been made—some were directed at me when my wedding got cancelled. There is the argument that two people who are in love should not need a big event to get married; they can have a smaller ceremony now and leave a big party to later. There is also the argument that people will always need to get married, so the wedding events industry will survive. Those arguments fail to acknowledge a few key difficulties, including the planning involved in putting a wedding on, and the wider effect on the industry and some of the traditions associated with weddings.

That last point is demonstrated by the story of the petitioner, Zaynah Ali:

“My brother was due to get married in August and coming from an Asian-Pakistani background we had planned this big wedding and had been doing so for well over a year.

I felt sadness, anger and every other relating emotions, I guess what made it even more emotional was the fact my brother’s wife to be had lost her dad to cancer when she was a baby.

The fact her father couldn’t be there for her big day was heart-breaking enough but the fact my grandparents couldn’t give her away in true Pakistani style made it that much harder.

They almost felt like they had failed her father.

There were also a few personal reasons as to why we did not want to postpone the wedding and I’m sure many people were in the same situation.”

I can indeed confirm that many are in that situation. My wedding had to be postponed due to the number of guests we had hoped to have. Like many others, we had planned for over two years. Postponing had an effect not only on us, but on the caterers, florists, decorators, entertainment, marquee companies and everyone else involved in putting on a wedding. I have spoken to local businesses, such as the Function Junction in Wallington, which supplies decorations for weddings and live events. It told me that while some people, like me, have decided to postpone and use the same supplier later, many, due to the uncertainty of coronavirus, have decided to cancel all together and not set a new date. That leaves the couple devastated and the business out of pocket.

According to research, the industry has already lost most of its planned weddings for the first quarter for 2021, and is facing pressures on those in the second quarter. If it has no commitment before July, the sector tells me that it will lose most of its revenue up to June 2021 or beyond, and even runs the risk of collapsing fully. I ask, therefore, that the Government look carefully at liberalising the restrictions around weddings once we come out of the second national lockdown and set out a road map for reopening the wedding industry in the longer term.

We hope and pray that a vaccine will allow weddings to take place normally some time soon—we have had some good news today—but we must also have a plan B for living longer-term with the virus. I argue, like the petitioners, that this could begin after the lockdown, with amending the guidance on weddings to allow for greater guest capacity based on the venue.

Many countries in Europe have permitted weddings with socially distanced numbers; in some places, the number is capped at, say, 100 in the equivalent of our tier 1 or lower-risk environments. Even in the UK, Northern Ireland operated socially distanced weddings since June, until the more recent restrictions were brought in. Weddings were granted parity with the hospitality sector, and there are no known outbreaks associated with weddings in Northern Ireland. That proves that it can work. In the longer term, weddings seem to me the perfect place to trial rapid testing. Given the planning involved, it is relatively easy to share details prior to the event, conduct testing on arrival, if necessary, and test and trace after the event. I hope that will be considered as a potential place to pilot rapid testing.

I have spoken about the impact of the pandemic on the industry. Further restrictions and uncertainty will only cause further damage. A commitment to socially distanced weddings, rapid testing trials and equitable support for the wedding industry, along with other hospitality businesses, will help to deliver a bounce back for this industry.

To date, over 145,000 people have signed the e-petition on live events, including 236 from my constituency. The petition states:

“The government has failed to provide specific support to UK festivals, dance venues and nightclubs. Covid-19 has hit hard on the nightlife sector having a major impact due to the suspension of mass gatherings. Followed by unclear guidelines and a lack of commitment…this has contributed to growing uncertainty within the arts sector, putting at risk millions of jobs. The government must make clear its commitment to ensuring the dance community survives the pandemic. #LetUSDance”.

I have been extremely grateful in preparing for the debate to the lead petitioners, Jasper and Anthony, as well as the Night Time Industries Association, for taking the time to share their concerns with me and explain the issues that the sector faces in a bit more detail. The figures are quite stark. The night-time economy is the UK’s fifth largest sector. It contributes £66 billion a year to the economy—6% of the UK total—and provides in the region of 1.3 million jobs, alongside an entire supply line of creative freelancers, sole traders and skilled technicians. Significant parts of the sector, unlike other hospitality businesses, have not been able to open at all since lockdown in March—particularly night clubs. Some venues have indeed invested heavily in becoming covid-secure, or have even repurposed. However, even those venues have been able to trade only at a fraction of their previous capacity. Many have also raised concerns about the implementation of the arbitrary 10 pm curfew. Now we are facing another national lockdown, and the uncertainty is growing. There are calls from the sector for an urgent set of sector-specific support packages.

Prior to the new national lockdown a survey was commissioned by the Night Time Industries Association and its members, and some pretty devastating statistics came out of it: 72% of businesses said they were unable to open or trade; 58% feared that they would not survive longer than two months after a job retention scheme came to an end; and 71% said they were set to make more than half their workforce redundant. Just a third said that they were able to repurpose. The average cost of repurposing was anywhere between £10,000 and £30,000, and 84% of businesses were achieving only 10% to 50% of their normal trade. That was on top of growing concerns about the implementation of a 10 pm curfew. The night-time economy was seen by many as being the target of restrictions despite evidence from Public Health England indicating that infection transmission in hospitality was only about 4%. The danger was that the curfew could drive people to congregate in the streets, in mass gatherings outside, or even to continue their night in unsafe, unregulated and illegal gatherings behind closed doors.

I have spoken to people from hospitality businesses in Carshalton and Wallington, who have expressed similar concerns. Thankfully, loyal customers came back to popular local businesses such as the Ginger Italian and the Duke’s Head, once hospitality was allowed to reopen partially. However, the 10 pm curfew was felt to be stunting their ability to recover. There have been further concerns about the allocation of support grants and packages, as there were fears that the contemporary dance music scene was not taken into account properly in Arts Council England funding allocations.

Night-time businesses and their supply chains have recognised that they need to put public health first, and they have worked incredibly hard to make themselves covid-safe for when the time comes, but they need clarity, in the form of a road map to reopening, so that they can prepare financially. The NTIA has a number of asks about finances, which include the continuation of employment support guaranteeing 80% of wages, an extension of the self-employed income support scheme, a sector-specific grant system proportionate to the operating costs of frontline businesses and the supply chain, a workable commercial rent solution, a reduced rate of VAT for hospitality throughout 2021, a business rates holiday for 2021-22 and, ultimately, the all-important strategy for exit from lockdown.

There are fears in the industry that without those measures we risk losing our nightlife and, indeed, our cultural heritage, for good. So again, while I say that today’s news is good and we hope that a vaccine might be coming fast, to allow some semblance of normality to come back, we have to have a plan for both sectors to live with the virus. Repeated lockdowns, as the Government have said, are not the answer. Further restrictions could well mean that the industry is not there to recover in the end.

In both the cases that I have spoken about, I urge the Government to look carefully at the concerns raised by the industry and at what support could be made available in the short term. Most importantly, for weddings and for live events, I urge them to set out a clear road map for reopening, so that businesses can begin to bounce back.