So, Glastonbury Festival 2021 is cancelled. But what next for festivals this summer?

There’s cause for optimism given the vaccine rollout has been successful so far, but the festival season and supposed 'Great British Summer' is still plagued with uncertainty.
Posted: 26 January 2021 Words: Tom Curtis-Horsfall

You're most likely very aware, unless you’re living under proverbial rock or have been hibernating off-grid waiting for this dystopian new normal to finally disappear, but Glastonbury Festival 2021 was cancelled last Thursday. Despite “efforts to move Heaven and Earth” to make it happen, Emily Eavis conceded that another enforced fallow year was on the cards. Better not dust off those flags just yet.

Perhaps inevitable, given that minimal gatherings haven’t even been sanctioned yet, we can’t predict where the world will be in a few months, and the rumour mill was properly churning since Mel B revealed she was told that it wouldn’t go ahead. If that was the case, maybe we dodged the bullet of a Spice girls headline slot, but even Macca cast doubt on returning to Worthy Farm this June, telling BBC Radio 4: "100,000 people closely packed together with flags and no masks - you know, talk about super-spreader. I'd love it to [happen], but I have a feeling it's not going to."

Glasto’s cancellation, whilst probable, still came as a surprise to many having been announced so early on in the year. All the faint optimism of leaving behind a dreadful 2020 came crashing back down to ground zero within only a few weeks. Yes, Glastonbury Festival being the UK’s if not the world’s greatest and most ambitious festival is a different beast altogether, and takes months of planning and preparation to execute, so best to call it quits from the off. Also, expecting 220,000 people to be galavanting care-free in the same place given the perilous situation our NHS finds itself in at present is also morally questionable. 

But Glasto is the benchmark for the festival industry, and now that they’ve pulled the plug we’re staring down the barrel of a similar fate to last year, the ‘Great British Summer’ failing to materialise and confidence in major festivals going ahead severely waning.

So, what does it mean for the festivals this summer? 

Paul Reed, the head of the Association of Independent Festivals shared his opinions after the Glastonbury news was announced: "[Glastonbury] is a different beast to most festivals and most likely ran out of time due to the size and complexity of the event. For most festivals, the cut-off point is more likely the end of March.”

Naturally, the organisational aspect of smaller festivals expected to take place at the similar time of years means they have more leeway - less artists, less staff, less punters, less prior planning to a certain degree. But time is still ticking, and the looming threat of cancellation is ever present when there’s no confidence in our government even protecting the music events industry, leaving UK Music to persevere with a roadmap to restart live music produced themselves.

The primary hurdle in festivals taking place is insurance. The risk is too high, especially with an uncertain landscape going into the summer, the lack of funds given a year of no revenue for most festival promoters, and the government yet to provide any scheme to help protect coronavirus-related cancellations as they’ve done with both film and television industries. Our European peers have started insurance schemes to cover events that cannot be rescheduled, yet the UK is lagging once again. Government intervention is paramount, so if an agreement can be made to support events going forwards the future will look much brighter. 

A lot hinges on potential insurance and the success of the vaccine rollout. According to our Prime Minister, once the 70+ age group and high-risk peoples are vaccinated by mid-Feb, that will hopefully reduce hospitalisations by 88%. As more and more vaccinations are administered this percentage should reduce pressure on the NHS further. By the summer months, if things go according to plan the outlook may be very different. Public pressure may become too great not for society to fully reopen. The vaccination programme is on track at present, but still, we can’t get ahead of ourselves.

The infection rate is much lower during the summer months, as we saw throughout June/July/August, due to transmission being dramatically lower in open-air environments. This along with mass testing may act as another element of security for outdoor music festivals being able to take place.

Speaking to NME last September regarding his ‘Full Capacity Plan’, Festival Republic owner Melvyn Benn said that a mandatory Covid-19 test would “create a personal incentive for the population to get frequently tested and use the NHS trace app. This known customer principle provides a safe alternative to social distancing for the entertainment and hospitality sector for ‘known customers’ who have tested free from COVID-19”. If the pressure on our NHS is much lower, and the testing capacity readily available to contain outbreaks, this is absolutely possible. Major festivals such as Reading and Leeds Festivals (run by Benn) will have the infrastructure and finance to implement such a large scale plan, though it may be much more difficult for smaller, independent festivals whose cash reserves are dangerously depleted. 

That hadn’t deterred Bigfoot Festival from revealed the lineup of their debut outing this coming June, having cancelled what was supposed to be their inaugural edition last year. Parklife and others are slightly more pragmatic, rescheduling festival dates to September when the best part of the population are protracted to have received a vaccination. 

Festivals further afield such as Albanian dance festival UNUM still intend to go ahead regardless of vaccinations due to rapid Covid-testing on-site. Slightly cavalier one may think, but once the tangible risk of infecting vulnerable members is reduced, even diminished, the public perception of this all-encompassing health crisis may begin to shift. Albania is the first country worldwide to approve cultural events can go ahead with the help of testing, and this trend could be potentially be adopted by more and more governments as the year unfolds. 

Those lucky enough to have nabbed a Glastonbury ticket will have to wait another year (thankfully they roll over), but may not have to wait that long until their next festival experience. 

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