'16 months of hell': UK clubbing industry braces for COVID passports

·5-min read
Clubbers on a dancefloor
UK club owners are concerned the introduction of COVID passports will further slow down their recovery. Photo: Getty

Britain's nightclubs face an uphill struggle over the coming weeks and months, despite excitement at reopening, as confusion reigns about best practices when asking for proof of vaccinations or a negative COVID-19 test. 

When the UK relaxed restrictions on 19 July Boris Johnson announced that nightclubs would need to police vaccine passports by the end of September, which is the planned date for everyone aged 18 and older to have had their vaccination. 

At the time, a poll of about 250 venues carried out by the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) found that 83% were against such a scheme. 

The move was widely criticised by many industry players, who said it would further cripple demand. Now September is almost upon us, that anxiety seems to be getting worse. 

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Lawrence Barton, owner of the Nightingale Club and Village Inn in Birmingham and chairman of the Southside District, feels that there has been mixed messaging on requirements for vaccination from the government so far. Despite the fact that vaccines are not mandatory in the UK. Stipulating a requirement to have one to enter a venue is a contradiction, he says.

There has also been confusion as to why a potential COVID passport plan for clubs has been suggested when clubs have already been open without them. 

Barton describes the pandemic as "16 months of hell" for the industry as venues have faced financially crippling extended lockdowns. 

"It's another cloud and another threat that's hung over an industry that has been hung out to dry by the current government," he says. 

Even before COVID, the clubbing industry was one in decline in the UK. The total market size had more than halved from 2011 when it was worth £3.3bn, to 2019 when it came in at £1.6bn, according to data from Ibis World. So far this year, owing to much of it being spent in lockdown, it has only brought in £227m, according to the same data set. 

Alongside this, clubs received no additional support in the initial stages of lockdowns, despite public health officials warning people off going. 

"Confusion about passports further exacerbates an already desperate situation – but the impact is unknown to us right now as we don't know how clubbers will react," says Barton. 

A government spokesperson said: “As the Prime Minister said, we reserve the right to do what is necessary to protect the public and reduce transmission of the virus, including mandating the NHS COVID Pass in certain settings

“We are working closely with organisations that operate large, crowded settings, where people are likely to be in close proximity to others outside their household, to encourage the use of the NHS COVID Pass.”

A report from February published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Night Time Economy, estimated that pre-COVID, the night-time industries (including clubbing, live music and pubs) contributed £66bn per year to the UK economy, and accounted for 1.3 million jobs – 8% of the UK’s total workforce.

Due to COVID, businesses in the night-time economy had, on average, made 37% of their total workforce redundant, with nightclubs laying off more than half (51%) of workers.  

Now, according to the same report, of those left, 85% of people working in the sector are considering leaving the industry.

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Michael Kill, CEO of the NTIA, says the government position on COVID passports has been "somewhat erratic". 

"In the last few weeks with the subsequent announcement from the Government on the mandatory requirement for passports, late-night operators have been extremely concerned, with many feeling like they are being marginalised," he said. 

"With mounting debt and the extended period of closure, this could have a huge impact on trade and the workforce."

Many venues have quoted a drop-off of almost 30% of weekly revenue, and tickets sales slowing for some events scheduled in October. There are also predictions of further shortages of staff to come if they are required to be vaccinated to work.

There seems to be some confusion around potential enforcement of COVID passports. 

Financially the impact will be felt in extra staffing costs, and the possible slowdown of people coming into clubs, say industry insiders. 

"There are obvious questions over how these checks will be enforced, and regarding the financial impact on the sectors," says Sacha Lord, night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester. "How will nightclubs now compete against pubs and bars down the road where these restrictions aren't needed, or attract punters who can just as easily have a house party without these enforcements in place."

"I have been in the nightlife and events industry for over 25 years, but I cannot see any reason why anyone would now want to enter this sector with such financially damaging restrictions in place."

Read more: What companies should know before making Covid-19 vaccination of staff compulsory

The report in February noted that without urgent government support, nightlife businesses face "extinction" that will see urban centres become "ghost towns" and hobble wider economic recovery. 

According to many nightclub and bar owners, the contentious issue of COVID passports has only served to worsen this predicament. 

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