It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the petitioners, my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn, and, of course, the 394 people in my constituency who had signed the petitions as of this morning.
Live events, conferences, exhibition organisers, and events such as graduation balls have all been affected by the virus. Both petitions are important, but I will focus on the one that calls for an increased number of guests to be permitted at weddings according to venue capacity, as that has been the issue that I have had most contact about directly.
One such conversation was with Mr Henry Weldon, the managing director of Maverick events operating at Prestwold Hall—a beautiful and popular grade I-listed stately home in the heart of the Leicestershire wolds. He explained to me that, to date, he has seen more than 120 weddings and events rearranged or cancelled. His catering business and the venue combined have lost a turnover of £1 million in 2020 alone. He says:
“There are serious concerns about not being able to restart by spring 2021, by which time we will effectively have been closed for a year. Government must give support and confidence to our sector and hence to our couples who have also suffered greatly.”
As I said in my speech during the debate on the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 last week, we must use the next few weeks to plan for how we can create recovery for ourselves, our local communities and our businesses. As part of that, I strongly believe that we should take a different approach to events when the new restrictions have eased.
Risk assessment is key. I have had several conversations with Ministers in the past few months about adopting Northern Ireland’s approach to weddings, where venues produce their own risk assessment of how many people they can safely accommodate while adhering to social distancing guidelines. Of course, we should not limit that approach to weddings; we should consider extending it to conferences and music events, which are in industries that have been among the hardest hit.
Over the summer, we saw how it was possible to restart industries in a safe way. We allowed restaurants, hairdressers and leisure centres, to name but a few, to reopen, as long as they followed the covid-19 secure guidance. So why should the events that we are discussing today be any different? We cannot continue to restrict them indefinitely. We need a plan, as has been implemented for other industries, so that such events can restart, and I believe that the more nuanced approach taken by Northern Ireland could form the basis of such a plan.
A number of constituents have written to me expressing their sadness and anxiety about having to delay their wedding or make difficult decisions about which of the people closest to them cannot attend. As one constituent has said:
“I recognise the impact of covid-19 on everyone’s daily lives, but for those couples who are planning a wedding, the toll on our mental health is significant. A wedding takes years to plan. It has an impact on finances and postponing a wedding for a full year means there is a huge risk that immediate family members may not be around to see our big day, which is heartbreaking for us and for them. All I ask is that consideration be given that numbers are increased according to venue capacity. I feel that the hospitality industry has adapted in the wake of covid-19 and shown that there are ways to hold a wedding and be safe.”
I echo my constituent’s plea, and I hope that in the next few weeks the Government will give serious consideration to reforming the approach to these events.