Scotland’s culture sector finally has something to be cheerful about for the first time in 15 months – Brian Ferguson

It has taken more than 15 months, but finally the Scottish cultural sector has something to be cheerful and optimistic about.

Months of campaigning for the easing of hugely controversial reopening restrictions on theatres, concert halls and comedy clubs has finally paid off.

They will finally be able to operate under the same distancing restrictions as cafes, bars and restaurants in Scotland from the middle of next month.

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If that news from Nicola Sturgeon came as a huge relief to a sector which has only emerged tentatively from lockdown, there was also the prospect of even bigger prizes being within reach.

The First Minister sprung something of a double surprise by proposing to lift outdoor social distancing restrictions completely by 19 July under its new timetable – and hoped to remove the remaining legal restrictions for indoor settings by 9 August.

Although final decisions will not be taken until nearer the time, the announcement by the First Minister is without question the most important for the recovery of the culture sector since the beginning of the pandemic.

The latter date in particular offers genuine hope that full venues, festival arenas and stadia could be back in less than eight weeks.

There is a deep irony that the events industry in Scotland has suddenly secured much more certainty at a time of huge upheaval in England after its own long-standing date for the lifting of all restrictions was put back to 19 July.

The Usher Hall in Edinburgh is among the many Scottish concert venues which have been closed since last March. Picture: Clark James

However it should not be forgotten that culture and events were effectively left behind other sectors by the Scottish Government this year.

Venue operators and festival operators have been left scratching their heads in bemusement that they were denied the ability to reopen under the same restrictions as pubs and restaurants. Those industries fought and won their case for an exemption from the two-metre rule last summer, way before the vaccine roll-out began, ahead of the initial easing of lockdown restrictions, on the grounds that businesses would not be able to operate on a viable basis.

That argument seemed to continually fall on deaf ears, even when a “reopening date” of 17 May for venues was confirmed. Ministers must surely have noticed that hardly any have opened since then.

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Of those that have, or ventured into outdoor events, audience numbers have been a fraction of what they would have been had they been able to operate with one-metre distancing.

The Festival Theatre is one of Edinburgh's main performing arts venues.

Frustration and exasperation that the performing arts were saddled with tighter restrictions than pubs or beer gardens should have been avoided long ago by ensuring that there was a relatively level playing field.

Those feelings must surely have been compounded by the handling and operation of a football fanzone on Glasgow Green, which is benefiting from a relaxation of strict crowd limits and the social distancing restrictions on all other events.

It did not escape my attention that a number of musicians and artists were announcing a return to live performance at a football-related event rather than a cultural festival.

While the above anomalies will remain intact for another few weeks, venues and festival organisers can now finally plan to reopen, reboot and set about a long-awaited recovery. One thing seems sure – the moment when their audiences do finally come back will be pretty special.

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