Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Why holding huge indoor event in time of Covid may be foolhardy – Stephen Jardine

It’s human nature. Following any unexpected trauma we are a bit more cautious and careful and that is perfectly understandable. Knowing what can result, we don’t want it to happen again.

The decision not to drop 13 Scottish local authorities down to Level One restrictions despite low hospitalisations reflects a caution that has been the hallmark of the Scottish government’s approach to the pandemic throughout the past year.

While the vaccination programme continues, the return to normality is slow but understandable.

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In Scotland’s capital city, that makes for some tough decisions.

Festival Fringe Director Shona McCarthy says there are only days left to relax social distancing rules for theatres to allow Edinburgh’s biggest event to go ahead this year in any viable way.

With opening up happening faster south of the Border, she fears a real danger to the future of the Fringe unless urgent decisions are taken and social distancing in theatres is reduced to one metre as it is in venues in England and across hospitality. Only on that basis would Fringe productions be financially sustainable.

“This is a moment when we’re really looking to the Scottish government to have that leap of faith and trust fringe operators,” she said.

But is this really the moment for that?

Fringe Festival acts, like this colourful comedy trio pictured in 2019, may still have to wait to perform to packed indoor audiences again, suggests Stephen Jardine (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

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The Edinburgh International Festival has already published its plans for a very limited event this year based on utilising temporary outdoor pavilions. Despite this, unlike the Fringe, it isn’t warning that could be terminal. Nor is the Tattoo which has cancelled this year but aims to be back with a bang next August.

With outdoor events like Glastonbury and Belladrum abandoned, the idea of a huge indoor event across multiple venues seems optimistic if not foolhardy.

The safety of everyone concerned has to got to come first and the poorly ventilated basements and side rooms that house the Fringe make that challenging when adult vaccination is not yet completed. And there is something else.

“This is all about local audiences, about attracting back, initially, Edinburgh people,” says Shona McCarthy. The reality is, a Fringe operating in anything like the usual way will attract audiences from all over the UK and perhaps beyond.

Unless ticket sales are restricted to Edinburgh postcodes, people from London and all over the country denied foreign holidays or the usual domestic summer events will flock here for entertainment. Just look at the number of people exiting Waverley Station with suitcases at the moment.

That would be a welcome boost for the beleaguered hospitality sector but would it be welcomed by the population of a city that has avoided high Covid infection rates over the past year and now faces being thrust into the spotlight this August in a way that could jeopardise all the progress made?

In time, we need the Fringe and the other festivals back. They generate over £1 billion and make Edinburgh vibrant and fun. But their impact on the city has been under the spotlight for a while and this could be the moment to reimagine them into a hybrid online and outdoor event using existing venues around the city. What we don’t need right now is another Edinburgh lockdown.

On that basis, business as usual this August doesn’t seem like a wise option for anyone.

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